Playing With Fire

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Everything was black. It always started like that. The colours soon started to mingle in. Blue, purple, magenta... Then I see a light. I don't know why, but every time, I fall for it. Light just pulls me toward it, away from the dark. Is that bad? I don't know. My brain moved me at a pace that felt like a float, since I couldn't feel my legs.

A tree appeared ahead of me, it's leaves barley moving. I stopped a few feet away from it, my eyes attracting to the woman behind it. She had beautiful auburn hair that flowed over her shoulders and down her back in a wave. A smile graced her angelic features, brightening up her entire face. I smiled back at her, and danced to her side. She looked into my eyes, and I into hers'. It was so nice to see her again, walking, breathing, moving. Never taking her eyes off mine, my mother reached toward me to take my hand...

My eyes snapped open. I sighed and pushed my hand through my hair, dejected. The loss is much more tolerable when I'm asleep. I got up and went to the bathroom to brush my hair, then shuffled though my closet to find some clothes. I managed to find a clean pair of blue jeans, and a simple white t-shirt that would go fine with my brown sweater. Then I swept myself down the stairs and into the kitchen. Tarry, my dad, was usually gone around seven in the morning. And since I only wake at 7:15 a.m., I didn't usually see him in the morning before school. Searching the pantry, I managed to find some oatmeal. I took two packs and retrieved two bowls from the dishwasher. Just as I was pouring the second package into one of the bowls, I heard two small feet dash down the stairs.

"Ellie! Ellamae!"

"In the kitchen!" I called, putting the empty packages in the garbage.

My small six year old sister, Sydney, rushed into the kitchen, a slight scowl on her face. Her lovely red-brown hair was neatly brushed, and she wore a pair of tight jeans and a blue T-shirt. "I can't find my blue sweater," she complained, looking up at me with big, golden eyes. I noticed the blue in them was becoming more visible each day. But the gold still shone brightly. Personally, I was happy her eyes were taking on a blue hue. She wouldn't get teased for her strange eyes if they changed colour.

"It's probably in the wash," I told her. "But it might be done now, I'll check." She followed me as I went to the dryer and opened it. It wasn't hard to locate her blue flannel sweater amongst the other clothes. I handed it to her, and folded the others quickly before returning to the kitchen.

"Oatmeal?" Sydney asked as she followed me, pushing her hands through her sweater arms.

"Yup. Did you want toast?" I moved to the toaster as I asked, knowing what her answer would be. The buns were already in. Terry must have put them in this morning before he left.

Just as I'd predicted, Sydney smiled and sat down at the table. "Yes please." She folded her small hands in her lap and watched me finish making the oatmeal.

"Here you go," I said, placing her bowl on the table and setting her toast in a separate plate next to her. I sat down in the chair across from her with my breakfast, and started eating.

We sat in silence for a while before Sydney paused in her chewing. "Ellie?" I looked up at her. My mouth was full, but giving her my attention drove her on. "I was wondering..." she looked away for me, down at her oatmeal. I saw her hands fiddling with her clean sweater. "...Are you going to tell me about the rule?" Her face was serious when she looked up at me again. She continued, assuming I didn't want to answer her, even though it wasn't that. I still had food in my mouth. "You said you would. And I want to know. Please?"

When my food was down, I inhaled deep. How was I supposed to explain the rule to her? She was only six. Would it even make sense to her? I was older than her when our mother explained it to me, and I still found it hard to grasp. But Sidney was a very bright girl, and I could tell she genuinely wanted to know.

I searched for the right words. "Cindy," I began, hesitating. "The rule just isn't that easy to explain. It's kind of complicated. Maybe we should discuss it another time? When we don't have to get to school on time?"

She shook her head. "No, let's talk about it now," she insisted. "I'll follow you around while you finish getting ready if you want," she suggested, "And aren't you going to do my hair? We can talk about it then, too."

There was really no way to avoid it, and honestly, was there really any reason to? "Okay," I sighed. "Let's go upstairs to do your hair. I'll explain it up there."

She smiled in triumph and put her dishes in the sink, then came back to collect mine too, as if it might hurry me along. I followed her up the stairs and into the washroom. She was already seated on the toilet with a comb in her hand when I came through the doorway. I took it from her and began running it through her perfect hair. I tried not to look in the mirror at myself. Every time I did, I was so happy to see my reflection, and disappointed at the same time. Happy because it reminded me of our mother, and disappointed because it didn't do justice. Many of the people in my school always commented on how beautiful I looked, and how much I looked like my mother, Evelyn. But I wasn't near as stunning as my mother had been before the accident. Before she... left forever. Mirrors were like an enemy to me sometimes. I didn't like them.

"So..?" Sydney's impatient question snapped me back to reality. She was waiting for me to explain.

"Umm," I pulled the comb through another strip of hair. "Well the rule goes back generations. It's part of our culture, I guess." I frowned in my own battle of how I was going to explain this, and began braiding her hair. "We aren't suppo-"

"How does it go, Ellie?" she interrupted. "What exactly is the rule, I mean? I know it's something about no love... it's not allowed..?"

"Yes." I took the braid out, suddenly unsatisfied with my first attempt this morning, and started over. "'To choose who you will love as long as you live is not allowed. A trail of the heart that can be avoided must be protected. Love is not allowed.'" I quoted. It felt odd, saying the rule out loud to someone so small. I studied her face in the mirror. Did she understand any of it? It wasn't even a rule everyone in Fargo or even Dilworth followed. The culture had grown smaller. Some of the people I hung out with didn't follow the rule. They dated, fell in love, broke each other's hearts... But I didn't. I wasn't allowed to date. When I turned eighteen, I'd "date" the man I was to marry, until our wedding.

Her eyebrows knitted together briefly, then straitened again. "So... we don't get to choose who we fall in love with?"

I was surprised she even picked that much up out of the confusing passage. "Yes. But it's more than that. Dad's going to choose who I'll love forever."

"You mean who you'll marry?"

I nodded. "When I turn seventeen, I'll meet the man dad has arranged for me to love." Even as I said the words, they sounded strange, although I don't know why. I've lived with the rule all my life. I was taught to memorize it at a very young age, even though I didn't know what it meant at the time. Maybe it was just that I'd never explained it before. To anyone. Tarry shouldn't do it, I knew that much. It was better for Sydney to hear it from me, someone she could relate to. The way our mother told me.

Sydney was looking at me in the mirror again as I concentrated on her braid. "But... then am I breaking the rule? Since I love you and Dad? No one told me I was allowed." Her confusion was obvious, but very judicious. She was thinking this through very seriously.

"No," I assured her. "That's not wrong. Loving Dad and myself is different. It's family. You're supposed to love your family. The rule is for people who are getting married. Spouses."

"Like Mom and Dad... were?"

I tried not to flinch at the mention of our mother and the word were put in the same sentence, for Sydney's sake. Putting an elastic around the end of her braid, I nodded into the mirror, knowing she'd be watching my expression.

She shifted her shoulders. "So did Mom and Dad get picked to marry each other too?"

"Yes, when Dad was eighteen, and Mom was seventeen," I answered, putting the comb away. "Grandma and Grandpa on Dad's side -and on Mom's side- decided together to match them as a couple," I explained.

"So does that mean Dad will decide who you and I marry one day?" Sydney turned to face me, cocking her head expectantly.

Leading the way out, I nodded. "Yes, Dad will choose. One day."

She followed me, her small feet falling into step with mine as we descended the stairs. "You're sixteen though. Your birthday is soon. In three weeks, right Ellie?"

Only three weeks. Tarry hadn't mentioned anything about meeting... him... when I turned eighteen. Had he forgotten? The thought made a part of me want to panic, but another more dominant part was hoping he had. I didn't know if I was ready to meet the man I would one day be married to. It kind of scared me.

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