02 - Jailbait

Lori nervously exited the building into the exercise yard. She had avoided mingling with the other prisoners since her arrival earlier in the day, other than her cell mate who ignored her, but now she felt like everyone was watching her. She knew that she should stand confidently but every time she tried she found herself sinking back into a cowering posture. It didn't take long for a gang of girls to notice.

"Hey, new meat," one said. "What are you in for?"

"Arson," she said, irritated at how weakly it came out. She saw no point in denying it anymore. Nobody was listening.

The girl snorted in derision. "Did you burn down your little doll house?" Lori didn't say anything. "Hey, I'm talking to you, new meat!"

The girls started to crowd in more closely. Lori was scared but didn't know what to do. She knew she should be strong but just wanted to curl up on the floor. Suddenly a voice shouted, "Back off!"

The bully looked over Lori's shoulder. "Who says I should?"

"We do," said the voice. The bully hesitated and then said, "Fine but get her out of our territory." The gang wandered off.

Lori turned to see another group of girls and they looked just as tough as unfriendly as the first. Lori got scared again but then one of them smiled at her. "Come on. Stick with us and you'll be OK." She beckoned Lori and walked off. Lori followed mostly because she didn't know where else to go.

"What's your name?"

"Lori."

"You really in for arson?"

"Yeah."

"Me too. We firebugs gotta stick together. They call me Pyro."

They approached some benches. Pyro took a seat and motioned for Lori to do the same. "When you come out into the yard, head over here. When people know you're with us they'll leave you alone."

"Um, okay." She hesitated, not wanting to offend her rescuer. "Why? I mean why are you helping me?"

Pyro shrugged. "Like I said, we firebugs gotta stick together." She studied Lori. "Look, you're going to need friends here. Not many can make it on their own and let's be honest you aren't strong enough to go solo here."

"I guess," Lori said uncomfortably.

One of the other girls said, "The princess is too good for us." The others laughed and it wasn't a pleasant laugh.

"No," Lori said quickly. "It's not that. I'm just..." She trailed off.

Pyro said, "Relax, Lori. We're just teasing. You don't really strike me as a hardened criminal. Let me guess, you're innocent." The girls laughed again.

"I am," Lori said defensively before she could catch herself.

"Hey, fine with me. Everyone here is innocent." Lori frowned at the comment but Pyro just laughed again. "Look, maybe you are one of the ones who's really innocent. I don't care one way or another."

Lori forced herself to relax. The girl really did seem to be reaching out. "Sorry," she said. "I honestly don't know. Maybe I really did it. I don't remember." She told Pyro the story and the girl listened attentively. When she was finished, out of courtesy, Lori asked, "So, what happened with you?"

Pyro looked at her very seriously and said, "Oh same thing as you. Except that I poured a bunch of kerosene around a Black Aces hideout and throw a Molotov into the place. You know, purely by accident."

Lori didn't even hear the jibe since she was focusing on something else Pyro had said. "Black Aces? Are you, um..."

"We're Maniacs," Pyro said.

Lori got scared again. "I...I...had no idea."

"Well, they don't exactly let us wear our gear in here. Hey, don't worry about us. Don't believe all the stories you've heard. The truth is," she grinned evilly, "we're much worse than that. But I'll tell you what, I promise I won't eat your face off. Not today anyhow."

The two girls locked gazes for a second and then Lori suddenly started laughing. It wasn't the sharp laughter of hysteria, but rather the soft sound of relief. "You're weird," she said. "I like weird."

Pyro laughed back. "Good, then we'll get along fine."

Lori found Pyro was right. As long as she hung out with the Maniacs, the other girls left her alone. Even the bully girl showed some deference now. She was surprised that the Maniac girls were really just girls--strange girls, but still just people.

Lori talked to Pyro about fire. She had never met anyone who understood her point of view. One day they had snuck off to one of the corners of the jail the guards seemed to have forgotten about. Prisoners came here for a lot of reasons that involved privacy--drugs, sex, violence. Sometimes, as in this case, it was just a nice place to talk without anyone listening in.

"Fire is beautiful," Lori said. "It's pure. It doesn't judge. It doesn't choose sides. It doesn't accept or reject you. It just is. It warms. It lights. It burns. It destroys. It gives life and it takes life."

Pyro nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I like that. You say it better than I can. It...it cleans things. It clears away what's bad. You know?"

"Exactly. It wipes the slate clean so you can build again."

"Right. See that's what it did for you," Pyro said. Lori was puzzled and the other girl continued. "You hated that house, right?" Lori nodded. "So why are you upset it burned down? You should be happy. You should have loved seeing that place in flames."

Lori thought about it. Now that Pyro mentioned it, she realized that underneath the confusion and shock she had felt a sort of exhilaration seeing the smoking rubble of her home. "I guess you're right. That place sucked. I'm free now." She shook her head. "Here in jail, I'm free."

"The fire burned away your chains."

Lori started laughing. "And all of Crystal's clothes got burned up. Oh and those stupid dolls. She had this collection of these ugly little dolls. She'd play little tea parties with them. My god, she's seventeen and she still would play tea parties with the dolls. And they all burned in the fire." She was laughing so hard tears were flowing. "And Mabel's cookbooks. That woman could burn a pot of boiling water, but she bought every cookbook on earth. And they all burned up just like every meal she made."

Both girls were laughing now. Their laughter faded and they basked in the moment. Pyro broke the silence, saying, "You know I go home tomorrow."

"I know," Lori said. She had been dreading this, but she was established with the other Maniacs. She'd be fine for her remaining ten days.

Pyro reached into a pocket. "I wanted to give you something." She handed it over.

Lori looked in wonder at the cheap little plastic lighter. "Wow. Thank you." She flicked it on and watched the flame.

"Don't let the guards catch you with that," Pyro cautioned.

"Of course not," Lori said, mesmerized. She reached out to feel the heat from the fire. As she did the flame danced, curling around her finger.

"How did you do that?"

"Me? I didn't do it. Must be air currents or something."

Pyro looked at her. "I know fire. Fire doesn't do that. You're not like a mutant or something, are you? Cause that'd be awesome."

Lori clicked off the lighter. "Geez, I wish. Can you imagine how great it would be to have fire at your fingertips? Literally."

"Yeah, that'd be cool," Pyro said, but she kept giving Lori a funny look. After a moment she shrugged it off. "Where are you going when you get out?"

Lori shrugged. "I suppose the state will stick me in another sucky foster home. Or a group home. I don't know."

Pyro snorted. "Fuck that. Come stay with us Maniacs. We'll put you up."

Lori hesitated. Even though she liked the girls she'd met she was still a little leery about the stories she'd heard about gang life. Then again she didn't really have anywhere to go. "Well, maybe." She grinned. "But remember you said you wouldn't eat my face off."

"Hey, that was just for that one day. No promises anymore."