top of page

Variations on an Arson

by Eileen Lynch

Jacob Becker never set fire to the section of forest preserve where a family of whitetail slept. The deer left outlines of their shapes in a stretch of prairie behind a barrier of fallen logs in Busse Woods Forest Preserve. September afternoons he visited after school, leaning his bike against a red maple. Until he got his license in six months, he was dependent on a Sting-Ray his foster brother no longer wanted. 

Jacob scattered apples filched from a grocery store dumpster and waited. He sat so quietly, a fawn approached and nibbled an apple directly from his hand. 

His favorite animals were scarce in October. A Google search revealed bucks were on the move looking for mates. After eating a granola bar, Jacob stood and swept grass from his pants. Darkness was descending; time to do the deed. He pedaled to an isolated spot he had scouted. In his back pocket was a butane lighter he’d stolen from his last foster father. Engraved with an elk that Jacob pretended was a whitetail buck, the lighter was his favorite possession. 

Jacob teepeed dry sticks over a mound of grass and ignited the pile. When flames didn’t burn fast enough, he crumpled unfinished math worksheets and a blank assignment notebook. As crimson sun faded pink, Jacob’s creation blazed yellow, sparks staking fresh territory. The school social worker who caught him with a lighter warned setting fires might result in felony arson, changing his life’s trajectory. Jacob played it off as a mistake and told the social worker that instead of lighting a cigarette, he set fire to his homework. So far, his fires were so small he hadn’t been caught.

Retrieving his bike, he followed a footpath that led from Busse Woods, not a regular entrance, a place cops didn’t patrol. He didn’t spot a plainclothes officer sitting in an unmarked sedan fast enough to flee. What happened next was a blur. Escorted into a squad car, he was detained overnight in Cook County jail. Next morning, he appeared before a judge who gave him a thirty-day sentence for misdemeanor arson. “I gave you a gift, son,” the county court judge said. “Treat it as such.”


A sleepless night in jail didn’t prepare Jacob for Cook County Juvenile Detention Center: cinder block rooms, metal doors with slits for food, barbed wire fences. His foster parents did not visit. Claimed they were too busy with their other kids. They terminated guardianship on the grounds Jacob was too much to handle. Claimed they had never met a kid so resistant to help. A guard escorted him to a beige room where he completed a mandatory psych evaluation. Jacob took his time answering questions, bubbling a Scantron answer sheet carefully, hoping whoever read it would see he didn’t belong in Cook County. 

Jacob knew how to play the game. How to look interested, sympathetic, or concerned when a well-meaning adult talked to him. To nod when offered clichés about making good choices. 

Dr. Andino was different. He offered Jacob a Coke, waited patiently for answers to his questions. During their first visit, the doctor reviewed his file. “Seems you were skipping school and breaking into cars. You landed here for misdemeanor arson. Did the judge explain first degree felony arson puts you behind bars a minimum of fifteen years? Maximum life?”

Jacob shifted in his seat. “I understand.”

Dr. Andino sat back in his chair. “How does it make you feel to set a fire, Jacob?”

“Focused. No past or future, just me enjoying a bright sunny day no matter the weather.”

Andino took notes. “I see. Troubling emotions like panic and anger disappear. When you wake up the next day, how do you feel?”

“Empty,” Jacob said. 

After three sessions, Jacob thought Dr. Andino was the best adult he had ever met. Old enough to be Jacob’s grandfather if he had a grandfather, which he didn’t. He barely knew Dad, much less Dad’s father. In fifth grade when Miss Ridgeway made them complete a family tree, Jacob fabricated a story of his ancestors sailing on the Mayflower with Christopher Columbus.

Gray hair bristled from Dr. Andino’s shiny scalp. A powerful torso suggested he hit the gym. His rounded stomach betrayed his love of sweets. What Jacob appreciated was the doctor told the truth, unlike counselors who spouted sunny slogans.

On the day before Jacob was to be released, the doctor brought him homemade chocolate chip cookies. “My wife loves to bake,” Andino said. “I give them away because I can’t afford the calories.” He patted his paunch.

“She can bake for me,” Jacob said.

“Let’s walk.” The doctor led Jacob down a long hall, then opened a security door leading outdoors. A round table with four chairs occupied a sheltered alcove. Dr. Andino gestured for Jacob to sit. “DCFS found a possible placement.”

A familiar mix of fear and excitement churned Jacob’s gut. “Where?”

“A small town near the Wisconsin border. Woodstock is an outdoorsy place where people hunt and fish.”

“What if I don’t like my new family?” Jacob asked. A gangbanger he met in juvie tried to persuade Jacob to join him in a counterfeiting scheme. “You will make more in a month with me than years at some nonsense job,” the guy said. An older inmate told Jacob the guy was all talk.

“Life isn’t a Hallmark movie.” Dr. Andino packed a pipe with tobacco from a leather pouch and lit it with a Bic. Inhaling deeply, he regarded Jacob as if he were an adult instead of a twitchy boy. “Despite what people tell you, young man, life doesn’t offer unlimited choices. The more time you spend in juvie, the better you’ll become at being an inmate.” Sweet smelling smoke wreathed the doctor’s head. 

An ineffable tenderness pierced the doctor’s stern expression. His words stung yet contained a ring of truth.

“Get me a trail bike and I’m in,” Jacob said.


PE was Jacob’s favorite class at his new school. At least he could move around. He protected a small shy boy named Colton Geary, whose face was framed by curly red hair he wore long. Kids bullied Colton, who confided to Jacob he feared PE more than any other class. Kids tripped Colton on the soccer field, stabbed him with fencing foils. When a meaty freshman spiked a volleyball at Colton’s head, Jacob found the kid in the locker room and threatened a beat down.

After school and weekends, Jacob explored woods and prairies on a used but serviceable trail bike provided by Mr. Albrecht, his foster father, who slipped him McDonalds money. 

The Saturday before summer break, Jacob saw Colton fishing at Jelke Creek Bird Sanctuary. Colton waved. “Come share my lunch.”

They started hanging out, drinking Cokes in Colton’s rec room while his mother hovered nearby, vacuuming, and replenishing snacks. 

Colton introduced Jacob to a local bar owner on the Fox River who let them borrow kayaks. The boys paddled past Sandhill cranes and turtles. 

The summer between freshman and sophomore year with Colton was the best of Jacob’s life. Living with the Albrecht family was better than his last situation. Mr. Albrecht loved to joke. Mrs. Albrecht let Jacob help himself to snacks and drinks.

Jacob commandeered energy drinks from the Albrecht’s pantry and pedaled to a park near the river. Colton was waiting in a stand of maples. They stuffed their faces with cookies and pretzels. 

Afternoons they lay on a blanket listening to summer slowly growing every kind of prairie grass imaginable.

Colton was silly when he was happy. He butter-cupped dandelions under Jacob’s chin. “Smell the sun,” he said. 

Together they sensed a twitch of grass, a sharp breeze foretelling a storm. A sudden rain sent them under wooden shelter. They sat wet but peaceful in the rinsed air. 

Jacob rubbed sticks together for ten minutes to start a fire. 

Colton stroked a careworn bear clipped to his backpack. “Bears are my favorite animal. Why do you love deer so much?”

“They travel in herds,” Jacob said, “unlike your solitary bear.” Watching his fifteen-year-old friend lug that sorry toy around bothered Jacob. He turned on his back and counted clouds. “My dad took me to a deer sanctuary before he split for Oregon,” Jacob said. 

Colton nodded as if it made perfect sense.

“Where’s your Mom?”

“Don’t know,” Jacob said. Mom had to give him up. She couldn’t quit taking pills that made her thin as a skeleton.

“Big bluestem is the official prairie grass of Illinois,” Colton said.

“Burns quickest,” Jacob said. “Look at you, the smart one.”

“You could be too if you paid attention in class. You always get that faraway look,” Colton said, finishing a pack of Combos, carefully licking off the salt before he sucked cheese from the pretzel. 

Jacob didn’t mind Colton’s weird habits or sad spells. Having a friend made the days go by. Less time obsessing over memories of his parents. How Mom sang to him when she helped him get dressed. How Dad took them for ice cream that one time.

“Halloween’s next week,” Colton said. “You still want to do the deed? Not sure why you want to burn the place where animals live.” 

“Wait until you see how pretty fire makes the sky,” Jacob said. “Orange as a pumpkin.”

Colton’s phone buzzed. “I gotta go. Dinner’s waiting.”

Jacob rode carefully around exposed tree roots until he hit pavement. Solid ground under his wheels, he pedaled furiously toward Whispering Oaks, the subdivision where he lived with the Albrechts.


Mrs. Albrecht didn’t like him leaving his bike in the grass, but Jacob did it anyway. Where she saw junky metal obstructing her green plank of grass, he saw a steed resting. His foster mother wasn’t home much. At the office, book club, or gym where she swam laps every morning. Mr. Albrecht confided she had given up cooking, letting him exist on fast food.

Whispering Oaks colonial-style homes were set in a semi-circle, formal living areas in the front. Everyone could see into each other’s family rooms. An internet study showed nearby houses went for $300,000. Driveways were occupied by minivans and second-hand sedans for kids learning to drive. Not as lush as the million-dollar mansions two towns over Jacob aspired to, but fancier than the frame shack his last foster family inhabited where Jacob shared a bedroom. He didn’t miss the noise and the smell of three boys stacked in bunk beds. 

Next door Elise Lawlor’s slider was open, music spilling out. Jacob liked to listen to her practice piano. A funny machine like a clock on steroids sat atop the piano keeping time. Her fingers moved with precision over white keys, striking a black key, foot pressing pedals, switching left to right. A smile curved her lips. The metronome forced an orderliness that fit the mood of the household. 

Jacob tracked the Lawlors from his bedroom window perch. He took comfort in their daily activities. Wearing an expensive camel hair topcoat, Mr. Lawlor caught an early train to downtown Chicago. Extravagantly decorated cakes for birthdays, savings bonds for presents. Elise’s mother kept the house so clean dust spent no more than a second on the furniture before it was wiped away. Dinner was roast beef, mashed potatoes, and green beans, laughter ringing the table. When he had his own family, Jacob would have regular mealtimes. Not like the last family who almost starved him to death. He and his foster sibs ate from bags - Dollar Store chips and cheese curls, cans of strange smelling meat. 

Elise Lawlor sat in front of Jacob in Geometry. Her clothes were expensive, not thrift store duds. He could tell her mood by how she styled her black, wavy hair. When it was freshly washed, the smell of coconut hung in the air. Later in the week, she wore it in a braid. 

At the piano she looked like a different person than she did in Geometry. Jacob had never talked to Elise. Talking was for adults. Teachers kept up a steady patter, oblivious that no one listened. Kids lived deep between their earbuds, individual kingdoms they controlled with a tap of the finger.

 Elise went by her initials. E.G. Lawlor. Reported to be a brain, she failed math. All her other classes were honors. She started the semester in Honors Geometry but did so poorly she was reassigned to regular. The only other kids who used initials were the Enbies, non-binary girls who clustered in a narrow hall off the theater wing. Elise was too pretty to be an Enby, wearing dresses when it turned warm, not mannish pants topped with plaid shirts. 

That night Jacob watched Elise from his bedroom window. She played by candlelight, hair loose around her shoulders, as if she were living in a castle before electricity was invented. Her utter devotion broke something open in him. Fireflies dancing lit the backyard. 


Not wanting to call attention to himself, Jacob didn’t wear a costume to school on Halloween. High schoolers didn’t dress up or trick or treat at his last school. At his new school, Oakwood High, students had as many dress-up days as preschoolers. Homecoming week they were given a list of costumes. Wednesday, kids wore footie pajamas.

Stealthy acts were more Jacob’s style. His biggest stunt was planned with Colton for Halloween. No one would suspect boys so quiet they faded into the walls. Jacob, with his slight build and smooth girlish hair, or Colton, who clutched a stuffed animal everywhere he went.

Avoiding crowded halls was key to surviving passing period. Bullies played by rules strict as those enforced by school administration. Short guys were punched, longhairs called fags. Jacob traveled only when the halls were empty. Light pooled from overhead fluorescent fixtures, creating a shining path down the middle of ceramic tiled hallways flecked blue and orange, school colors. All Jacob had to do when he lost sight of the laddered light was step forward and the path extended to safety.

Texts to Colton went unanswered Halloween morning. Frantic, Jacob called his house. Mrs. Geary told Jacob that Colton was in the hospital. 

“Did he get hurt?” Jacob asked, hoping for something simple, like a sprain.

“He cut his wrists,” Mrs. Geary said. “Please leave him alone.”

Colton was probably at Crescent Behavioral. A dull haze of cloud and mist hung in the air. Jacob had to find a way to cheer Colton up, maybe ride by the hospital and wave. Dr. Andino from juvie might help his friend. Jacob called the number on the doctor’s card. A lady said Jacob was not authorized to make an appointment because he wasn’t Colton’s legal guardian. 

So much for the best doctor he ever met. Adults meant well. They just made promises they couldn’t keep. 

That left igniting the woods to Jacob. 


Next morning at breakfast Mr. Albrecht read from his phone, “Ten acres burned in Oakwood Acres last night.” 

Bending over, Jacob loosened a knot in his shoelace.

Mr. Albrecht eyed Jacob as he filled his thermos with coffee. “Who would do such a thing?”

“I’m late,” Jacob said. He rode his bike to school, avoiding a corner where tough guys ambushed smaller kids. Jacob’s one hundred thirty pounds were no match for their fat fists. He spared himself bruises by being strategic. 

Sirens scolded in the distance as a hint of Jacob’s burnt offering traveled the breeze.


English, his most hated subject, met second period. He did enjoy watching leaves change on three symmetrical red oaks visible from his uncomfortable chair. Jacob didn’t know why adults said he didn’t appreciate beauty. 

Mrs. Zander talked so much his thoughts wandered to childhood, trying to identify the exact moment life turned on him. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with Attention Deficit Disorder in first grade. Doctors threw a bunch of letters at him: ADHD, ODD, DMDD. ODD hurt his feelings until he discovered it meant Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Jacob was convinced there was nothing wrong with him that a decent house and his own family couldn’t fix. Normal stuff kids took for granted.

“Follow along, Jacob,” Mrs. Zander said. Her teeth were Chiclet white, smile forced. She gave him a hand-out, her mouth emitting a waterfall of words he couldn’t understand. Projected on a pull-down screen was the worksheet. The teacher colored some words yellow, some bright blue. “Make the colon really large,” she said.

 “Not purple, deep blue. Watch what I’m doing, Jacob.” Mrs. Zander was wearing an orange sweater for Halloween. Always a theme for her.

Jacob missed talking with Colton. Kept him from thinking. A kid across the room was wearing a Grinch hat. Reminded Jacob of reading Cat in the Hat. First grade was fine. Wearing his own Dr. Seuss hat and yellow gloves, he dragged a secondhand backpack over black snow. A nice old lady named Miss M accompanied him from the moment he exited the bus until the end of his day.

Miss M met his bus, practically whispering, “Can I help you?” Special needs students were escorted to lockers then classrooms. Miss M was a helper, two weeks into the job and every bit as lost as Jacob. Even little kids knew taking the short bus meant you had problems. You couldn’t sit still, you couldn’t keep your mouth shut when the teacher was talking, you couldn’t keep your hands to yourself in lunch line. You were bad in transition.

Mrs. Dale’s room was for special first graders. Every morning she stood at a podium clutching a clipboard. Short platinum hair fringed with square bangs lay obediently against her large head. “Good morning, Jacob. Is skipping the right way to enter a room? Try again.”

Jacob skipped out, pivoted, and reentered the room with small deliberate steps. “Am I doing it right?” he asked. Hands clasped behind his back, Jacob waited for Mrs. Dale to return the clipboard he presented to his first-grade teacher, gym teacher, lunch supervisor, and bus driver. Each rated his behavior in half-hour increments totaled at the end of the day. Mrs. Dale made him wait so long he peed his pants. That day he started hating school.

A metallic clatter startled Jacob to attention. Kid next to him said, “Dropped your phone, bro.” Jacob’s assignment sheet was riddled with holes. He had been stabbing the paper with his pencil. Returning his attention to the board, Jacob realized he was lost. He hadn’t progressed since first grade. Truth was that his sweet smile and headful of angelic blond curls earned him better report cards in elementary school. He still had good hair, but high school teachers didn’t seem to be impressed. 

“Look at the board,” Mrs. Zander said. Her projected grammar sheet was a crayon box full of colors, every sentence a different shade.

No time for this bullshit. The security officer would be up front checking late arrivals. While the teacher’s back was turned, Jacob hurried from the classroom, left school through a back door, unlocked his bike from the rack and pedaled past the three fiery oaks. 


The house was locked. Mr. Albrecht confiscated Jacob’s key when his grades slipped to two D’s and three F’s. Jacob would have to spend the day outside until Mrs. Albrecht arrived home from work.

A moving truck was parked outside Elise’s house. Two men emerged pushing her piano. Not even a tarp to protect it. Jacob wondered if she was getting a new one. Her family had money. 

The next day, Jacob couldn’t wait to see Elise in math class. She was all curves as opposed to geometric angles and lines. He planned to offer help if she struggled. No chance. Mr. Hill talked and talked, then made them take a test.

A student snitch appeared with a pass. Brains like her were never summoned to the dean. 

Kid behind whispered, “Elise had a tantrum first period AP English. Spiraled so bad Dortmund removed her from class.” 

AP Elise acting badly, Jacob thought. An interesting development.


Jacob read the newspaper in Dean Dortmund’s office upside down: WHO Declares International Public Health Emergency. 

The newspaper concealed a lanyard dangling a key fob which granted access to the building. When the Dean was called into the hall, Jacob pocketed the fob.

He continued reading the paper. So much news about a Chinese virus. Everybody, no matter what news channel they watched, paid attention. 

Returning to the room, Dean Dortmund issued Jacob a suspension for leaving school without permission. Under the masthead, a report of Illinois’ first coronavirus case. An eighty-two-year-old New York woman died.

Didn’t old women die every day? Jacob wondered as Dortmund marched him to in-school suspension. All desks were occupied except one. A loose braid trailed down the back of the only girl in the room. Jacob’s pulse quickened when he realized it was Elise Lawlor. 

A lean man with a dark stubble and a leg he could not keep still substituted for the usual teacher in charge, a nice lady named Mrs. Weber who plastered the room with inspirational posters: Tough Times Never Last but Tough People Do! Jacob liked serving detention with Mrs. Weber. She spoke softly when he was upset, sneaked him a Snickers bar on difficult days.

Elise’s long black hair was caught in a careless knot. Cocking his baseball hat forward to shield his face, Jacob imagined catching Elise’s loosened hair in his fingers.

Her geometry test was laced with red check marks. Elise crossed out wrong answers with a permanent marker, like a lawyer redacting a sensitive document. Her back trembled as if she were crying. Jacob wanted to touch her. 

“Don’t worry,” he said.

“This room is for quiet study, no talking,” the sub said. He was reading a race track program. A wiry man of medium height, the sub marked his choices for a trifecta at Arlington Park.

“Cops stopped me last night,” a kid with a tight ‘fro and caramel-colored skin dotted with pale freckles named Terrence told a hoody-covered friend.

“Last warning,” the sub said.

Terrence smirked. “We get three.”

The sub leaped from his chair, pulled Terrence to a standing position. “Listen, you ungrateful little bastard, one more word and the consequences won’t be a cozy little school where people follow you around trying to prop up your miserable little ass.”

“I’ll report you,” Terrence said.

The sub pushed Terrence back into the chair. “Why don’t you tell Dean Dortmund how I abused you? He’s my uncle. Do your homework. You too,” he said, pointing at Jacob.

No one said a word until lunch, when the room supervisor led detention servers to the cafeteria single file, chain gang style. Jacob offered Elise his Cheddar Fries. 

“When I was in the front office, I heard the principal say school might close. Coronavirus,” Elise said.

“Don’t take it so hard. We might have time off,” Jacob said.

“President Trump declared a national emergency,” Elise said. “If school closes, I’ll have no place to play. My dad is so mad I’m flunking English and Math, he sold my piano. If I don’t graduate, he’s kicking me out.”

“I have an idea,” Jacob said. “Meet me after school at the entrance to Oakwood Acres.”


Elise did not appear at the appointed time. Anger flared in his stomach at the idea she was ditching him. Jacob cracked his knuckles, checked his phone. She was a half hour late. A flash of red coat emerging from a tangle of shrub announced her arrival. 

Walking two feet apart, they passed a wood cabin. “If your parents kick you out, we can live here,” Jacob said.

Elise didn’t answer.

A chilly wind licked Jacob’s neck. Elise talked so little, he found it hard to read her. He wanted to hug her but was afraid of scaring her. Girls were confusing. Her deep attention made him think she cared. 

“You probably couldn’t fend for yourself in the wild,” Jacob said. He helped her over a dense brush pile. On the other side was an expanse of flattened prairie grass. 

Jacob removed apples from his backpack and scattered them. “This is where the whitetail sleep.”

“You spend a lot of time in the woods,” Elise said. “Who are you, the Unabomber?” 

Not wanting to admit he didn’t understand her reference, Jacob tried redirection. “What’s your favorite place?”

“My piano,” Elise said. “When I play well, sparks fly.”

“What’s that song you play?” Jacob asked.

“’Variations on a Pirouette.’ Watching the fireflies inspired me.” Late slanting sun pinkened her pale skin, flecked her hazel eyes green as ferns that grew in the deepest part of the woods. Red highlights danced in her dark hair. “My composition for a statewide contest. Best piece I’ve ever written.” 

They crossed a wooden bridge spanning a trickle of muddy water. Elise removed a penny from her pocket and threw it in the sludge as if it were a clean running stream.

“Writing ‘Pirouette’ made me high. Stayed up all night with no caffeine. Music flowed down my arm, out my fingers. Forgot my classes. When I came up for air, I was flunking everything. My entry is at school. They won’t accept a copy of the official registration. What if they lock the building for the stupid pandemic?” Tears flowed down her cheeks. “If I miss this deadline, my life will be ruined.”

“Let me help you,” Jacob said. “Put your number in my phone.”

He was surprised when she did.

 “You ever catch fireflies in a bottle?” Jacob asked. Her full attention was sweeter than any drug. He was jealous of her music. If he worked hard enough, he could be her high.

“No. Wild things should stay wild.” 

Jacob had kissed two girls. They let him know they were ready by flirting. Elise wasn’t like any other girl he had met. She carried a world around with her, a princess in a snow globe, a lone skater bisecting a moonlit lake. He gathered her hair in his hand.

She drew back. “I need to get home. If I’m late, my dad will ground me forever.”


Monday morning Mr. Albrecht received an alert that school was closed for an indefinite amount of time. 

Jacob’s foster sister started crying. “I’ll miss my birthday celebration at school,” she sobbed. 

A chance to be a hero had arrived. If Jacob sneaked Elise into the school to retrieve her contest entry, she would love him forever.

He texted her to meet him in the woods.


Minutes passed, a half hour. Jacob checked his phone for texts, nervous she had changed her mind. 

Elise’s complexion was white as dead parchment when she finally arrived. Something bad was stuck inside her, like a cat choking on a hairball. A new sensation flooded Jacob’s heart. He wanted to fix her. 

He stuck his hands in pockets and tried to be casual. They walked a half mile to a clearing. “Ever seen a four-hundred-year-old oak?”

Elise shook her head.

She wasn’t going to talk. He thought it would be different outside where they could breathe. “Follow me,” Jacob said.

They came upon a clearing commanded by a white oak.

“That tree is five feet in diameter,” Jacob said. “I measured it.”

Wide-eyed, Elise still didn’t speak.

Out of tricks to impress the girl he loved, Jacob grabbed her blue jacket sleeve. “Scream,” he said. 

“No,” she said. “My parents want me to attend business college so I can learn computer skills. Dad is so ancient. He thinks if I can learn how to type a perfect letter, I can earn a living. Nobody writes letters anymore.”

Trying a different tack, Jacob said, “The deer like me so much they eat from my hands. I know where they hide. Follow me.”

A quarter mile ahead was the whitetails’ favorite glade. Jacob crossed his fingers the deer would be there so he could impress Elise. They came upon a herd watching them with long lashed limpid eyes.

“I told you,” Jacob said, removing apples from his backpack. The animals fled into the woods. 

“You must have scared them,” Jacob said. “They know me.”

“Your talking did it. They were happy before we disturbed them. Everything good comes out of quiet. Green grass, prairie fronds, flowers, music. Music especially.” She leaned toward him, removed an apple from his hands. “Humans shouldn’t feed deer,” Elise said. “Makes them sick.”

Suddenly she was gone. She ran like a girl. 

He caught up easily, grabbed her by the neck. Her barrette snapped open, loosening her hair over her shoulders. A musty smell clung to her, as if she hadn’t showered in a couple of days. 

“Let me help you,” Jacob tightened his grip, crushing her narrow-boned wrist. 

“Don’t hurt me,” she said.

He tapped her back as he had seen a foster mom do with a choking child. “Screaming will help you get rid of your bad feelings,” he said. “I read an article.” 

Elise let out a high-pitched cry, startling Jacob into dropping her arm. “Don’t touch me.” Seeing his expression, she softened her tone. “I will die if I don’t win this contest. My entry is in the practice room.”

Jacob fingered the key fob from the Dean’s desk. “Meet me in the faculty lot as soon as it gets dark,” Jacob said. “I’ll get you inside.”


A waxing moon pulsed in the sky, thin clouds creating a layered mist. Jacob hid in a shadow near the entrance. Until he studied Elise’s hair, Jacob never knew black held shades of gray and blue. 

She was late as usual. She exited a sedan style car, not her father’s Suburban. The driver, who he couldn’t see, kept the motor running. 

Breathless and a little sweaty, Elise ran toward him. Sweeping his hand with a flourish, Jacob ran the stolen key fob over the reader. The door opened. 

Elise ran down dark halls to the theater wing. Jacob trailed behind, disoriented by the lack of light.

Her composition was filed in a wire rack, inside a manila folder marked with her name. Elise kissed it, held it against her chest. “Let’s go,” she said. “I’m nervous someone will find us.”

“Nobody’s here, I checked.” Jacob lied. He had perfected an innocent expression for foster parents. “I brought a candle so you can play your song for me, like Beethoven.” With a flick of his favorite lighter, he lit a tapered wax candle lifted from Mrs. Albrecht’s china cabinet. He had forgotten a holder, so he gripped the base with his right hand.

Elise began to play. A charming melody played in three-quarter time conjured a girl dressed in a shimmering ball gown gliding on the arm of a handsome man. The ballroom where they danced was lit by a chandelier dripping with crystals. Jacob closed his eyes, savoring the thought of Elise in his arms. A faster tempo startled him from his reverie, then a change of key from major to minor. A spooky syncopated mayhem conjuring fireflies dancing in the dark of a July night. Jacob had never heard anything like it. Variation upon variation. He balanced a manila folder containing Elise’s other compositions on his knee. He thumbed through the folder with his free hand. On top was a draft of Elise’s composer statement. Wedged between assignment sheets was a headshot of Elise. Behind the headshot was another picture, one of Elise kissing Dani, leader of the Enbies. Full on the mouth. Jacob stared. They wore matching crop tops held up by spaghetti strings. Rage hit the pit of his stomach and traveled upward faster than Elise’s fingers traveled the keyboard.

Jacob tipped the candle to ignite the folder.

“What are you doing?” Elise screamed.

 “I chose you; why couldn’t you choose me?”

Her eyes narrowed. She looked at him like a toy she was donating to Good Will. “I never loved you, lunatic.”

The anger he had been tamping down spiraled. Not fair, his insides screamed. Why did he always have to wear the oldest clothes, ride the cheapest bike, play with toys scrounged from a Dollar Store dumpster? Why did no one find him lovable enough to keep? He felt for his elk lighter deep in his pocket. 

“You think you’re the only one who can light up a room?” he said. “I am an artist, too.” Pulling student folders from a wooden rack, Jacob piled paper atop the piano and lit the pile. Flames quickly engulfed sheet music. 

A spark landed in Elise’s hair.

“My original,” she screamed. She stuck her hand through the flames to retrieve singed sheet music. “You monster.” 

An alarm sounded. He let her go and she ran.

Jacob’s feet felt cemented to the floor, transfixed by the sight of a burning piano. Fire ate the shelf where Elise had propped her music. Sparks leaped from black keys, igniting boxes of concert programs. Jacob watched figures form in the crackling light – yellow devils, white angels, a deer running.

A coughing fit brought him back. He had to escape. Lungs tight, he ran. An untied shoelace tripped him, made him fall hard on porcelain tile. He rested for a split second in the quiet where Elise claimed all good things grew. Green grass, prairie fronds, flowers, music. Did she mention love?

Hearing voices, he scrambled to right himself, searching for landmarks in the dark hall. No shining path to lead him to safety, love, or forgiveness.

No judge would deem his act of passion a misdemeanor. After years of hiding in the shadows, his name would be known.

Under a red exit sign, pinpoints of white dotted the blackness of Science Hall. Male voices armed with flashlights called to each other as they advanced. Jacob blinked as his field of vision flooded with hosts of fireflies dancing on a hot July night.



Eileen Lynch is a writer, editor, and teacher who has lived in New Mexico and Illinois. After managing an ethics program for an international association, she switched careers to teach in a suburban Chicago high school. She has participated in writing workshops at the University of Chicago, Albuquerque, and Taos, New Mexico. The city of Chicago and surrounding suburbs are a backdrop for her work. 


bottom of page