When the first teenage girl lit herself on fire, Maggie was not thinking about ashes and embers as she stood under the fluorescent lights of the meat section of the local Costco. Instead, she was trying to figure out if it was possible to use up ten pounds of pork chops before they would go bad.
“It was Stacy Wang,” her friend and fellow Asian mother Elizabeth said, her long red fingernails prying through packages of organic chicken. “You know, the one who fried her hair with bleach and pierced her own nose. Apparently her mother was just walking down the hall when she saw it happen; Stacy lit a match and suddenly she was on fire.”
Maggie wasn’t sad, or even shocked. Mildly surprised, maybe, at best. She had never heard of teenage girls bursting into flames, but to be honest, everyone knew that nothing good could ever happen to a girl like Stacy Wang. She was bound to end up running away with some strange man on his motorcycle or disappearing to the streets of some bumbling city without so much as a goodbye. She was every mother’s worst nightmare, as if some caricature had been drawn from all the things that they feared most. Didn’t care about grades, stayed out past her curfew, etc, etc. But the worst part was what she did care about. She didn’t want to become a doctor, or an engineer, or a lawyer, or heck, even an accountant. “No,” Maggie remembered Mrs. Wang sighing at their weekly motherly get-togethers, “She wants to go to film school! So I told her, I did not cross oceans and work the skin off my palms for you to end up a penniless art student, my lord!” The rest of the mothers, Maggie included, laughed as Mrs. Wang fumed. Stacy wasn’t like their own daughters: girls with dark hair and wide eyes, who grasped onto the ideals of hard work and obedience the same way little girls clutched onto fairytales and happily ever afters, girls who were raised to be everything their mothers wanted them to be. Besides, Mrs. Wang had three daughters, two of which were sweet and smart and sat with perfectly straight backs. Everyone knew that raising a good daughter took time and effort; you couldn’t blame Mrs. Wang for trying. She was bound to get one wrong.
Girls weren’t supposed to be matchsticks and burst in flames, but then again, girls like Stacy Wang weren’t supposed to exist. Stacy wasn’t really a girl, but rather a canister of gasoline, just waiting to burn. Yes, Maggie told herself, that’s what happened.
(She tried not to think of the seven year old Stacy she remembered at her daughter’s second grade dance rehearsal, all pre-braces toothy smile and pink tutu, crumbling into ashes).
Nothing much changed in the weeks that followed. Nobody mentioned Stacy Wang’s name, or her existence. She was wiped away from family photos, as if she had been a puff of smoke all along. Maggie still met Elizabeth, under the lights of the Costco every week, still buying pork chops even though they were never finished. The mothers and their daughters stressed out over grades and university applications and the looming future. Mrs. Wang changed her Facebook bio from “mother of three” to “mother of two.” When they all met at Mrs. Wang’s house for tea nobody mentioned that the smell of smoke still hung in the air.
But Maggie knew something was off when she went to go buy pork chops one week and didn’t bump into Elizabeth, who was always there in the deli section on Wednesday evenings. Elizabeth was always there when you expected her to be. When she spoke she had thought about every sentence that came out of her mouth, like it was redrafted, revised, and edited. She kept every promise she made, and always had everything under control. They would always smile to Elizabeth’s daughter and say, “you’re lucky you have a mother who has it all planned out for you.”
When Maggie came home, she was faced instead with a phone call, Elizabeth’s wavering voice recounting the events that had happened that night. She had come home, ready to see her daughter bent over a textbook, but found a pile of ashes and a burnt-out matchstick instead. When she had stepped closer, it was all cold, as if it had been sitting there for hours. “Oh Maggie, I did everything I could to make her perfect. I should’ve tried harder, right?” Elizabeth whispered, the words all tumbling out, as if she couldn’t control them and they were falling straight out from behind her tongue.
It was the only time Maggie had ever heard Elizabeth sound unsure of herself.
Maggie still remembered the village in China she grew up in. She still had the tan of blazing Zhejiang summers across the backs of her hands even though she now lived in dreary Connecticut for two decades. Hell, she had crossed oceans with nothing but a small carry-on and a flimsy American dream, had found herself in the streets of a city where her tongue was slathered in something too thick to understand, where she learned how lonely you could feel in a crowd. The skin on her palms was still hardened from her early days working eleven hours a day at a shady Chinese restaurant when she first got here, afraid and underpaid. God,she thought as she looked at her daughter, if you only knew how much it took to get you here.
Maggie thought—no, she knew— that she had been a good mother. She read all the pregnancy and parenting books and did all the little things. When she was pregnant she choked down a cup of walnuts everyday because they said that would make your kid smarter, blasted classical music she couldn’t stand into her ears for hours because it would turn your child into the next Mozart. And when her daughter was born, she did everything she could again, moving to the districts with the best schools, sending her to all the tutors and all the extra classes. She drove her daughter from soccer practice to band practice to debate tournaments and back, spent all her days browsing the forums for how to get your kid into an Ivy League. She had done everything she could to give her daughter the world, and all her daughter had to do was go and take it.
That week, the mothers met at Maggie’s house. Instead of tea, Maggie cooked a huge pot of broth, the way their own mothers used to make for them, the kind that tasted like home; it was the first time she was able to use up all the pork chops. She did not say anything when Elizabeth drank it, even though she had sworn off anything non-free range and stopped eating red meat, nor that Elizabeth’s fingernail polish was chipped for the first time in a long time.
Soon, the air had turned thicker, even curdled with smog, in the next few weeks. Everything was foggier, still visible but the edges of the world blurred and greyer, as if Maggie was wandering through a dream. It seemed like there was a new name of a girl who had lit herself on fire every other day. There were rumors that there were girls trying to carve themselves into matchsticks, preparing to burn. She had seen them, their arms and legs whittling down to fragile wooden bones, their shoulders and hips collapsing into themselves. Their skinny jeans and skin-tight shirts hung off their thin frames now like curtains, which when the wind blew, flew over them like oceans they were drowning in. Maggie pretended she didn’t wonder how long it would take for their backpacks to crush them in an avalanche of textbooks and lipgloss, told herself to forget how long it was been when she saw a normal teenager. Matchstick girls didn’t exist, or at least the fact that they did didn’t matter to her. They would never really exist in her life. There was nothing Maggie could do about it, couldn’t save them from a fate and a sad ending that was written in their veins years ago. Besides, her daughter was captain of the soccer team, volunteered at the Children’s Hospital on weekends, was destined for good things, not like them.
It was over dinner when Maggie first noticed her daughter’s thin wrists.
“I’ve told you mom, I can’t eat meat anymore; it goes against my morals.” Her daughter began, like she did every dinner, looking at the pork chops disdainfully.
“What morals; you’re sixteen, you couldn’t possibly know what’s best for you. Back in my day we only were able to eat meat on holidays. Now stop complaining and eat! You can deal with your morals when you move out of my house.” Maggie snapped back. Her daughter sighed in response, and picked up her fork. But it was like her hands were too weak, as it clattered back onto the table as soon as it slipped between her fingers. When her daughter went to go pick it up again, the edges of her long sleeves slid back onto the crooks of her elbow, revealing her forearms had been whittled down, patterns of wooden grains curling up into her elbows.
“What is this?” The words flew out of Maggie’s mouth as she snatched her daughter’s wrist.
“Mom, all the other girls are doing—”
“Do you think I raised you to be just another girl? Do you think I put in all this work for you to just be average?” Maggie had switched to speaking mandarin, the way she did when her mind was working to quickly for her tongue to keep up in accented English.
“Well maybe I want to be a normal girl, mom, have you ever thought of that?” her daughter yelled back, in English. She never studied hard enough in Chinese school to ever keep up a conversation in anything other than basic conversational Chinese.
“I cannot believe that any daughter of mine would ever want to be average. I cannot believe that any daughter of mine would be so weak as to try to set herself on fire!”
“Why does it make you ashamed that I am broken?”
“What, in your life, has ever had the capacity to break you?”
“You, mom. You broke me!”
They yelled, back and forth at each other for hours, each speaking in a mother tongue the other could only half understand, like they were from different universes, feeling like there was not just a kitchen table in between them, but galaxies and dark matter. That night, all Maggie heard were slammed doors and her daughter’s wailing as she confiscated every matchstick and lighter in the house.
“It’s for your own good, my dear,” Maggie whispered, just softly enough so her daughter would think that she had not said anything at all.
Maggie knew that she should’ve been more surprised when she found ashes and a burnt out matchstick on the front steps when she got home. She did not cry, but instead swept them up into a dustpan and buried them next to the pink roses in the backyards, the ones her daughter had picked out from the garden store when she was seven. The whole city was covered in black smog, and now everyone needed oxygen masks to breathe. When she met Elizabeth, who had her nails repainted perfectly and was going through the organic chicken once again, in the deli section at Costco on a Wednesday evening, Maggie did not mention her daughter or the other girls who had the same fate. Instead, she took out a package of pork chops and put them into her cart, pretending to herself that this time would be different, that this time she’d be able to finish them.
Katie Chen is a senior at Colonel By Secondary School in Ottawa, Canada. Her work has been recognized by Scholastic Art and Writing and The Adroit Journal Mentorship Program. Other than writing, the two loves of her life are avocado toast and daydreaming.