The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century29 min read
Across the water, Coney Island screams, all summer-sizzle, hotdogs, sunscreen, and children fueled by too much sugar. Everything is bright and loud, and if not exactly clean, then cleaner at least than in her day. The brothels are gone, the tumbling rides designed to give men a chance to peek up ladies’ skirts. People don’t need the excuse to see each other’s flesh these days. Even the breeze off Gravesend Bay smells different.
“Are you sure you don’t need to sit, Nan?”
She’s nobody’s nana, but with women of a certain age, the title simply comes, clinging until it becomes a truth of its own. The young woman might be a great, great, great grand-niece after all. It’s not impossible. Cecily—that’s the girl’s name—touches her sleeve.
Cecily’s hair is dark, long, and straight. Her eyes are kind. She’s hardly a girl, a young woman really, but everyone is young these days.
“Yes, sitting would be nice.”
She lets Cecily lead her to a bench and points to the end of the pier.
“There used to be a movie studio there. Did you know? Back at the start of the last century. Maryville. A man named Don Leaming built it, thinking to rival Edison’s Black Maria. He wanted to be bigger than Vitagraph, bigger than all those sun-drenched studios popping up out west.”
“Oh?” Cecily is distracted, glancing at her phone.
“It burned,” she says, and Cecily looks up finally, attention caught; the old woman tucks a smile into the corner of her cheek.
“I was one of the studio girls. Trick films. Have you ever heard of those?”
Cecily shakes her head.
“Think of Georges Méliès,” the old woman says. “Moon men appearing in puffs of smoke. Only these were like fairy tales, the old kind meant to assure the world that women were empty-headed, foolish, and vain. I’ll give Don Leaming this, he thought up dozens of clever ways to make us die.”
She pauses, gauging, so it doesn’t come out as a question when she says, “I was about your age, twenty years old. My specialty was burning.”
Cecily slides her phone back into her pocket with a skeptical frown.
“Then you’d have to be over a hundred and thirty years old now.”
“Improbable, I’ll admit, but not impossible. The world is full of miracles, and this place in particular draws them.”
Cecily follows the sweep of her arm, taking in the bay and the park on the other side.
“Back then, Coney Island rivaled the White City in Chicago. It was a place of wonders. You could ride a boat through the gates of Hell and experience Creation all in a day. They murdered an elephant here, and kept babies in incubators on display. And those were only the public attractions. I could tell you stories of wolves in the Grand Ballroom, and the ghosts of lost animals searching for their one-armed trainer.”
Cecily opens her mouth, but closes it again, as the old woman shakes her head to show she’s just kidding. Maybe.
“The island was always burning back then. Once for each park—Steeplechase, Luna, and Dreamland—but the first great fire happened right here.”
In her mind’s eye, a phantom studio juts over the water. She imagines the charred remains sunk to the bottom of the bay, wave-tossed and softened beyond recognition.
In the bright Brooklyn sunlight, the old woman’s eyes spark, gold as the sun, and the girl who may or may not be her great, great, great grand-niece startles.
“It burned, and I was there when it did.”
The projector whirs, blue smoke winding through beams of light, breathed by the men watching Mary Catherine on screen. She keeps to the back of the room, fingers curled into her palms, knuckles white. She focuses on her heart, which wants to race, and making her features smooth should one of the men glance her way. There are a dozen other girls just like her in the studio’s employ, and a dozen more waiting in the wings.
She forces herself to smile.
On screen, her dark hair is pinned beneath a neat cap. She wears a pressed white apron over a long black dress, feather duster in hand. She knows what comes next, and clenches her jaw. Mary Catherine the careless, silly maid turns her back on the open hearth and bends to straighten a rug.
The studio head, Don Leaming, nudges the man beside him. The man turns, and even in the dark, his gaze crawls over Mary Catherine, as good as hands. She’s expected to lower her eyes, blush, play virtuous-yet-coy, whatever it takes for investors to throw more cash Don’s way.
Heat prickles the underside of Mary Catherine’s skin. Humiliation, frustration. Her bones crackle, and she fights the feeling. On screen, the hem of the maid’s uniform strays into the fire and whoosh! She explodes.
Silver-white animated flames engulf the maid, who runs about waving her arms, setting alight the curtains, the chairs. As if no simple maid could know oxygen feeds fire; as if no simple maid would know how to smother flames. Mary Catherine swallows, her throat raw.
In the next scene, a skeleton with serenely folded arms lies next to the hearth. The master of the house shakes a finger at it, then throws his hands in the air. The title card reads: Good help is so hard to find!
The men roar, slapping each other on the back. As Don stands to load the next reel, his voice reaches back to her.
“Just wait until you see the next one. This girl is a real star.”
Mary Catherine freezes. The reel flickers to life and a woman swirls across the screen in her lover’s arms, all dark curls and smoke-lined eyes, and the space behind Mary Catherine’s breastbone stutters. A shout of warning lodges in Mary Catherine’s throat. She’s halfway to reaching for the screen, as if she could save the woman who is far too lovely to burn. But her beau dances her backward and flames scale the woman’s dress, little hands and hungry mouths framing her face and her open, silent mouth, as prettily as her curls.
All at once, it’s too much. Mary Catherine bashes through the door, eyes stinging. She hauls in a ragged breath, thinking of oxygen feeding flames and almost trips over a woman seated on the step, smoking.
“Couldn’t stand it either?” It’s the woman from the film.
Words flee, leaving Mary Catherine’s mouth open. A breeze off the bay carries the faint scent of green weeds. A seagull shrieks, a blood-curdling sound.
“I hate those things, but they pay the bills. Mary Grace.” The woman holds out a slim hand, neatly transferring her cigarette. “Gracie.”
Mary Catherine stares, wishing she could stop. Light clings to the woman. Even without the setting sun, she would glow. Mary Catherine takes the proffered hand, and Gracie uses it to pull herself to a standing position.
“Mary Catherine. Cat.” Her voice sounds small and far away, halfway to terrified. She’s never called herself Cat before, but the name is there, attaching itself to her and feeling right.
“Cat.” In Gracie’s mouth, it’s decadent, cherries soaked in brandy, rolled on her tongue.
Before Cat can press a palm to the heat rising in her cheeks, Gracie loops their arms together as though they’re old friends.
“You’re coming with me.”
“Where?” Cat glances back at the studio.
She’ll lose her job. Good. She doesn’t want the job anyway. She wants to follow Gracie wherever she might go. The thought is scandalous, and Cat suppresses a burst of nervous laughter.
“We,” Gracie lights two cigarettes, passing one to Cat without breaking stride, “are going to take the train to Coney Island. We are going to drink, then we are going to kick off our shoes and walk in the sand.”
“Oh.” It’s the only thing Cat can think to say. Dazzled, she lets Gracie lead, and she follows.
The lights of Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland blaze against the dark. No matter how many times Cat sees the parks, they still take her breath away. The soaring towers, the impossible wonders, even the sillier rides like Dew Drop and Wedding Ring, designed to give men and women an excuse to grab onto each other.
Cat lets Gracie steer her away from the park entrances and down the shore. Music spills from Dreamland’s Grand Ballroom, laughter, song, and light brightening the sand beneath the pier. An ache opens inside her. Cat pushes it down until she can convince herself it isn’t there at all.
She lifts her long skirt a few inches to keep the hem from the tide. Gracie hikes her own skirt above her knees, plunging into the waves. When she looks back at Cat, a dare glitters in her eyes.
Cat snaps her mouth shut, aware it’s gaping. She should look away. She should gather her skirts in her fists and run as far and fast as she can. She knows how young ladies ought to behave, and it isn’t like this. Even in this place of miracles, this is a step too far. Music swirls overhead, couples dancing, but Dreamland’s Ballroom might as well be a world away.
Gracie lets her skirt fall, water swirling the now-heavy fabric around her legs. A sadness replaces the hard-edged light of mischief in her eyes. She wades closer, stops. Too near and too far.
“What do you want, Cat?” Gracie’s eyes are luminous in a way that has nothing to do with the light falling from the Ballroom above.
Cat’s pulse thrums. She’s on screen, in one of Don’s films, burning, tiny flames dancing up and down her skin. The fire swallows all the air, and Cat doesn’t have enough breath left to answer Gracie’s question.
Until this moment, she thought she knew what she wanted. A job. To save money, enough to buy a little place of her own instead of renting a miserable one-room apartment. To live alone. To …
She hasn’t thought past what happens when she ages beyond her usefulness to Don Leaming and his pictures. The only thing she knows is what she doesn’t want, and she dares not voice that aloud. It’s the thing she is supposed to want, what her mother taught her women must shape their lives toward, tucking every bright bit of themselves away until they can catch a man’s eye. Cat cannot imagine existing solely at the whims and mercy of a husband, children always tugging at her skirt. She wants to do something important with her life. She wants to matter.
Gracie takes another step. A salt-tinged breeze picks at her curls. Above the pier, the sky blushes to cobalt and grey, scattered with stars. Beneath the pier, they exist in their own twilight. In this light, Gracie doesn’t even look human.
What do you want? The question lingers, and it isn’t one Cat can answer. She wants what she shouldn’t want. She wants what she can’t want.
Despite the water’s cold, heat blooms inside of her. Cat tamps it down, imagining the waves dousing a coal burning between her ribs.
“I watched you in the studio, before we met outside,” Gracie says. “I was so sure you were like me.”
The pattern of waves swirling around Cat’s ankles leave her dizzy. There’s something inside and behind Gracie’s words, something she isn’t quite getting. Gracie lifts her hand like she’s cupping something precious. It must be a trick of the light; a flame shivers on Gracie’s palm, silver-white, blue, burnt-orange.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Gracie burns.
Cat chokes on a cry as flames engulf Gracie, amber and gold. There are no cameras, no screen between them, no trick.
Gracie strokes a hand down her arm, wincing as she scoops fire into her palm. The flames reflect in her pupils as she holds her hand up, then shakes it so the flames scatter and hiss out as they strike the water. She slumps, and only instinct allows Cat to grab her before she falls.
Gracie’s head lolls, curls landing against Cat’s shoulder. Cat isn’t sure she’s strong enough. Her knees want to buckle, dropping them both into the water.
“What do you want, Cat?” The words are soft and slurred, so Cat barely hears them.
Gracie’s lids droop, as if she will fall asleep in Cat’s arms. Light seeps between the pier’s cracks. Cat imagines the Ballroom, all those happy, dancing couples above them. She is wrong; she doesn’t fit in that picture-perfect world. She wants the impossible.
“Gracie,” she whispers, scarcely hearing herself over the thunder of her heart. “I want you to dance with me.”
Gracie turns her face up to Cat’s, a sleepy smile.
“I thought you would never ask.”
Cat supports her, unsure how, moving both of them, feet sloshing in the tide. She’s crying. Wet skirts cling to her shins. Gracie’s hair tickles her.
There’s no one here. No one to see. Mary Grace and Mary Catherine—hidden away where even God can’t find them.
Cat closes her eyes. She tries not to think of church every Sunday growing up, sermons on the wages of sin, the fate of the wicked. She has crossed that invisible line; when she dies, hell will swallow her.
Even in Gracie’s arms, panic beats at her. She is in the studio, watching herself on screen, watching herself explode. She is there, pushed this way and that by Don Leaming, his to command until she isn’t useful anymore. She wants to help people with her life, but she doesn’t know how. She’s useless. She’s a sinner. She’s a coward. Afraid.
Heat crisps at her, peeling the flesh from her bones. Flames wreathe her from within. A scream rises to her lips and stops, and now Gracie is the one holding her up, calling her name.
“I knew it!” Reflected light dances in Gracie’s wide-pupiled gaze, but she isn’t the one burning, not anymore.
Cat looks down. Silver flames sheathe her arms like elbow-length gloves. She watches, entranced. It doesn’t hurt. It should hurt. The wicked should be punished for their sins. Gracie’s smile lights the night, brighter than the Ballroom above and all of Coney Island blazing.
“Cat, you’re burning.”
Cat squeezes water from her hair, sitting on the edge of Gracie’s bed, shivering. She isn’t certain whether she should laugh, or cry again—it’s all so absurd.
The last hours are a blur. She has a vague memory of dropping into the water, flailing like a caught fish to douse the flames. Gracie must have hauled her up, dragged her home. What a sight they must have been, soaked and dripping on the train. Or did they walk? She isn’t even sure where they are.
The bed Cat sits on is narrow and unmade. A small dressing screen sits in one corner of the room and the only other significant piece of furniture is a vanity table bearing a mirror. There’s a framed photograph on the table, angled so a smear of light blurs the picture underneath. Cat’s bedraggled reflection makes her realize she’s only in her camisole and slip, and her cheeks flush bright, then brighter still as Gracie emerges from behind the screen, holding out a robe for her.
Cat turns away, wrapping herself. Gracie sits, keeping a careful distance between them.
“I’m sorry,” Gracie says. “I didn’t know where else to take you. I was afraid …” She waves her hands vaguely, leaving Cat to imagine her own hysterical state. She’s lucky she didn’t get them both locked up as mad women.
“What happened?” Cat twists fabric in her fists.
She has the wild impulse to take Gracie’s hand. Would it really be so terrible? They’ve already danced. But no. That was a fever dream. A hallucination.
Ghost-fire hangs in Gracie’s eyes. There’s no question. She burned. They both did.
“One of the nuns in the orphanage where I was raised used to tell me a story,” Gracie says, looking down.
Oh, Cat thinks, and another piece of the mystery that is Gracie clicks into place.
“If the Mother Superior ever found out, I’m certain she would have been punished, but Sister Elise wasn’t like the other nuns. She told me that the night I was found on the orphanage steps, a star fell across the sky. Only it wasn’t a star, that’s just what people thought. Sister Elise saw what it really was—a bird with silver and gold plumage, burning all across the sky.”
Cat swallows, a lump in her throat like an ember, reducing anything she might say to ash. Gracie peeks at her from half-lowered eyes, needing Cat’s belief. She looks so much younger than she did, smoking on Maryville’s steps, almost a different woman, her brash confidence gone.
“I’m not human,” Gracie says. “Neither of us are.”
Oh. Cat is dizzy again, like the ocean surging beneath her. Even the thought of burning is impossible right now. She’s shaking, and she can’t stop. She pictures her mother and father, their stern but loving faces. Gracie’s story is beautiful, but it can’t be true.
She wants it to be, though. Desperately and suddenly, Cat wants this more than anything she’s wanted before. It would explain so much. It would excuse her need. If she isn’t even human, if she’s something else, then she can’t be a sinner. She can’t go to hell, can she?
A breath, and Cat does a daring thing she could never imagine herself doing only hours ago. She takes Gracie’s hand. She holds it, hoping it will speak for her, all the things she still cannot bring herself to say.
“You could stay.” Gracie’s whisper sounds almost pained.
Cat thinks of the bold girl who looped their arms together on the studio pier, strode into the water with her skirt lifted high. It makes her feel better, somehow, that Gracie is also afraid.
“Yes,” she says, her heart falling through her ribs, but her body somehow remaining upright.
Gracie shifts, making room. Cat lies down. Gracie lies beside her. Like sisters, Cat thinks, that’s all.
The bed is narrow, the space between them narrower still. Cat studies the back of Gracie’s neck, the soft places where her dark hair curls. Holding her breath, she wraps one arm around Gracie’s shoulder. The pulse in her wrist matches the one in Gracie’s chest.
And somehow, one last impossible thing in a night of impossibilities—they fall asleep like that, beat matched to beat, a fantastical rhythm.
Cat wakes to sunlight and Gracie returning from the bathroom down the hall. Gracie smiles, almost shy, and Cat pushes herself into a sitting position. She’s still here. The earth didn’t swallow her whole. They lay all night, side by side, and no hellfire came to claim them. Cat bounces up and seizes Gracie by the shoulders, half spinning her around in delight.
“We should get pastries and eat them in the park.”
“What about the studio?” Gracie raises an eyebrow, amused at Cat’s sudden energy.
Cat’s blood fizzes like champagne. It’s Gracie; together, they can do anything.
“Oh, who cares about the studio and Don Leaming. We can go anywhere we want.”
The fire is there, just beneath Cat’s skin. She doesn’t know what to do with it, but surely Gracie can teach her. They must have been fated to meet. They can help others, light the way from mine disasters, or save people trapped under buildings in earthquakes. They are miracles.
“We could go to … Paris!” Cat thinks of Steeplechase’s scale model of the Eiffel Tower, and how glorious would it be to see the real thing.
“And what we would do there?” The light in Gracie’s eyes is less than Cat would have imagined, and she lets her hands slide from Gracie’s shoulders.
“But I thought …” Cat takes a step back.
She’s misunderstood everything. She wants to fold herself as small as her image in one of Don Leaming’s trick films and disappear.
Her gaze falls on the vanity, and the picture frame, turned at a slightly different angle now, but empty. She could swear it held a photograph last night. Does Gracie have a secret beau? Is she ashamed of Cat, disgusted by her?
“Cat.” Gracie touches Cat’s wrist gently, and the sparrow-flight of her thoughts stills for a moment.
“How would we live?” At the sadness in Gracie’s eyes, hope drains from Cat leaving her empty, feeling foolish.
Why would Gracie show her these wonders if not for them to be together, to change the world? Was all of it a lie? Did she only mean to entrap Cat, make her reveal her true self, and if so, for what purpose? She imagines herself locked in some asylum, restrained and subject to terrible cures.
“I would love to go to Paris with you.” Gracie offers a sorrow-touched smile. “But Don Leaming is putting me in a film. Not just a trick film, but a picture with a proper story. I’m to play Joan of Arc.”
And there it is. Cat’s heart drops out of her completely. Not only is she being replaced, but the studio is moving on without her, taking Gracie along as a star, and leaving her with nothing. Once Don Leaming starts making history pictures, he’ll forget all about trick films.
“Congratulations. I’m happy for you.” Cat snatches at her dress, hung to dry last night alongside Gracie’s, stuffing her body back into it with vicious motions.
She’d thought Gracie hated the studio as much as she did, but perhaps all along she knew she would be a star. Cat strides for the door, but Gracie’s stricken expression catches her eye. Gracie’s fists curl at her sides, her lips pressed into a thin line. Smoke seeps from between her fingers.
But she says nothing, doesn’t call Cat’s name, or tell her not to go. Cat raises her chin, makes it firm, and slams the door behind her, not allowing her shoulders to slump until she reaches the street below.
“You’re late.” Don Leaming speaks around the cigar clamped in his mouth. “And you left before the party last night. There were gentlemen looking forward to meeting you.”
The implication is clear in his words, disdain and annoyance leaking out with the smoke.
“I’m ready to work.” Cat lowers her gaze. She won’t apologize, but she needs to work as much as she can before she’s out of a job altogether.
“You better be.” Don waves her away, cigar trailing more smoke.
Cat slinks to the dressing room. Today she will be a circus performer, shot from a cannon and exploded into a thousand glittering pieces. If she could explode for real, she would embed fragments of herself in Don Leaming’s face like shrapnel.
She looks at her palms. Concentrates. Is there a faint glow, or is it only her imagination?
The longer Cat stares, the more she’s convinced she’s seeing things. A headache gathers between her eyes. She wipes her palms against the fabric of her costume and makes her way onto the stage.
Cat doesn’t see Gracie again for three days, and the absence dulls to an ache like a bruise. They’d only just met; how can Cat miss her so fiercely? Especially when it’s clear Gracie doesn’t want her around?
On screen, she is struck by lightning, reduced to the size of an ant and dropped into the pocket of a young boy, and once again set aflame by carelessly straying too close to a stove. She bears the humiliation, and steels herself not to react when, at the next screening party, one of Don Leaming’s investor friends repeatedly brushes up against her as if by accident, though she knows it is no mistake at all.
As soon as she can, Cat slips out the door. Tension holds her rigid to the point of aching, and she wants nothing more than to slump against the pier’s railing and listen to the water lap the wood pilings until the sound numbs her and she feels nothing at all.
Moisture beads the air, obscuring the figure already at the end of the pier until Cat is already upon her and it’s too late to turn away. The tip of Gracie’s cigarette burns, the only bright thing, save for Coney Island across the water.
There’s an invisible weight, a shadow wrapped close around Gracie’s skin. Cat searches her outline, the edges where Gracie meets the darkness for the tell-tale flicker of silver flame, and sees nothing. Cat finds herself apologizing; despite everything, she still desperately wants to be Gracie’s friend.
“I shouldn’t have run out like that.” Cat rushes the words out before she loses her nerve. “I really am pleased for you. I can see why Don Leaming wants to build his first big picture around you.”
Gracie makes a sound between a cough and laughter, picking a fleck of ash from her lip.
“I never wanted to be a star. I have to be one.”
The words make no sense. Cat sidles up beside Gracie. That first night, she thought she’d gotten to understand her at least a little, and now she doesn’t understand anything at all.
“At the orphanage,” Gracie says, “I used to watch the sky on clear nights. I was certain I would see that star racing across the sky, the one Sister Elise told me about, and then my real parents would come find me and take me away.”
Gracie tilts her chin at the cloud-covered dark. One arm wraps her body, the other propped against it to hold her cigarette near her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” Cat whispers. So many questions crowd her tongue, but she can’t think of one that won’t deepen Gracie’s pain.
The space between them fills with longing. Cat wants to put an arm around Gracie, but she’s afraid. Even over Gravesend Bay, there’s a scent to her—charcoal, black powder, a match-head waiting for a spark.
“When I realized my parents weren’t ever coming, and it was all just a stupid story Sister Elise made up, I started wishing more than anything I could get rid of this power. Be normal, like the other girls in the orphanage. Some nights, I wouldn’t sleep. I knelt beside my bed, praying until my knees hurt so much I could barely walk. I would try to get in trouble so the Mother Superior would punish me. I thought the pain would make me clean.” Gracie shakes her head, voice raw, like smoke.
“Nothing worked. I kept on burning.”
“Do you still wish it would go away?” Cat asks softly. If Gracie thinks of herself as wrong, broken, what does that make Cat?
“I wouldn’t give the fire away for anything. I hate that I have to hide it.” Gracie’s eyes blaze.
“Can you teach me?” The words emerge, breathless, before Cat can think better of them. Her pulse runs like a startled deer.
“Give me your hands.” Gracie offers hers, palms up.
Cat places hers over them.
“What makes you angry?”
The pressure of Gracie’s thumbs holding her hands in place feels like a rising bruise. Cat thinks of Don Leaming, his trick films designed to make women look useless and small. She thinks of all the ways he’s found to kill her on screen—burned, lightning-struck, crushed. She thinks of Gracie dancing on screen, her lover backing her into the flame. Anger flares, a quick, stuttering spark.
Cat yelps, pulling her hands back and shaking at her fingers, checking the tips to see if they’re singed.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs.
“It’s okay.” Gracie considers Cat, then her mouth twists in wry amusement. “No, anger isn’t you, is it? What did you feel on the beach?”
Cat blushes. Fear of hell swallowing her, fear born of wanting. Cat’s skin prickles at just the memory, dancing in Gracie’s arms, the tide around their feet. Her instinct is to tamp the feeling down, but she holds onto it, lets it grow. She lay beside Gracie in bed, put an arm around her, and the world didn’t end.
The memories are oxygen, and Cat feeds them to her fire. Warmth rises and tiny rills of fire sweep up Cat’s arms. She gasps. Forgetting where they are, that they could be seen, Cat lifts her arms, watches the flames dance. They are tiny, but they are there, undeniable.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Cat says, amazed.
“That’s good. You’re lucky.” Gracie clenches her jaw, makes a fist, and fire seeps between her fingers. She holds it up, burning, and even in the dark, Cat sees beads of sweat along Gracie’s hairline.
Her own flames sink back into her skin. She wants to tell Gracie to stop, but she’s frozen in place, mesmerized. Gracie lets out a gasp, pain. Droplets of fire scatter onto the water, and Gracie pants, shallow breaths.
Cat reaches for her, but Gracie holds up a hand, stilling her. Gracie’s hurt feels impossibly large, nothing Cat can touch.
“You should go,” Gracie says. “It’s late.”
Cat raises her hand, lets it fall. She turns, ashamed of herself, her cowardice. Her steps echo as she leaves Gracie alone by the water, arms wrapped around herself, a lonely, fallen star.
While Don begins filming Joan of Arc, he puts another director in charge of the trick films. Audiences love them, and the studio will churn them out as long as demand lasts. Cat feels more like a prop than ever, run ragged by the end of each day, but still she sneaks into the section of the studio where Gracie is filming, watching discretely as Gracie hears the voice of God, finds out the true king, leads her army. Cat knows the movie will end with Joan at the stake, but even in the scenes where Gracie is a simple peasant girl, Cat sees her burning.
There’s a feverishness to her. Sometimes, Cat swears she sees heat shimmering from Gracie’s skin, flames tracing her, but no one else notices. Once, Cat sees what look like wings spread behind Gracie like a vast and terrible shadow.
Alone in her apartment at night, Cat practices. Without Gracie’s hands to steady her, it’s harder. She manages a small glow, like a candle burning low, but nothing more. Many nights, she’s too tired to do anything more than fall into bed and a deep and dreamless sleep.
Even though they are both at the studio most days, Cat rarely has a chance to talk to Gracie. They might as well be worlds apart. She wants to steal Gracie away, roam Luna Park and Steeplechase and Dreamland with her. But every time she thinks of it, Cat loses her nerve. Shadows haunt Gracie’s skin, dark circles beneath her eyes.
Then, in a blink, filming on Joan of Arc is almost complete due to Don Leaming’s breakneck pace. Cat can’t help the feeling that once the picture is released, either she will be out of a job, or Gracie will. She’s running out of time, for what, she doesn’t know.
Cat finds herself alone in the studio dressing room. They’re filming Gracie’s climactic scene, and somehow, Cat is the only studio girl not roped into being one of the extras. She looks around at the scattered possessions, clothing carelessly shed like skin and draped over chairs, bags left behind.
Gracie’s things are among them, and Cat kneels, touching Gracie’s dress, running her fingers over the fabric. Gracie’s bag is beneath her dress. Cat’s fingers are on the clasp as if of their own accord, twisting it open, rooting inside.
She shouldn’t. She has no right. But there might be some clue to a way she can help Gracie.
Her hand brushes a square of thick paper. A photograph, the same size as the empty frame in Gracie’s apartment. Gracie stands with her arm around another woman against a cloth backdrop depicting Paris. Both women are smiling, mouths slightly blurred as if the photographer caught them mid-laugh. There’s a stamp in the bottom righthand corner—Luna Park. Cat has seen the building from the outside, where visitors can go to have their portraits taken.
Her breath stutters, a fresh ache. There’s a casual intimacy to the way the two women hold each other, and there are no shadows in Gracie’s eyes in the photograph. Her smile is untainted; she looks purely happy.
A wisp of smoke rises from Cat’s fingers and she drops the photograph. The corner is barely singed, but the mark is there—her guilt plain to see. She tries to stuff the photograph back in Gracie’s bag, but a shadow falls over her, and Cat freezes.
“Eleanor,” Gracie says, the name weighted with loss. “We were left at the orphanage the same week. Aside from Sister Elise, she was all the family I had.”
Cat straightens. She makes herself meet Gracie’s eyes. She holds out the picture like an apology and Gracie takes it.
“Eleanor was the only other person who knew about the fire. One day, I got so angry, I don’t even remember why, but I could feel the flames creeping up inside me. I was terrified someone else would see so I ran out into the courtyard. Eleanor followed me without me seeing her. She saw the flames burst out of my skin, and you know what she did?”
It isn’t really a question; Cat waits.
“She didn’t even hesitate. She threw her arms around me to smother the flames, because she thought I was in danger. She never treated me like I was different. She helped keep me safe. When I couldn’t calm the fire on my own, she would put her arms around me, and hold me until I stopped burning.”
A tear slips down Gracie’s cheek. She wipes it away with the back of her hand. Cat lets her fingertips brush against the dampness and the salt. Gracie startles, but she doesn’t pull away.
“She moved out here before I did. I came to visit her, that’s when this was taken. She was the one who wanted to be a star.”
“What happened?” Cat asks.
“Don Leaming made promises. And he was careless, the way men are.” The bitterness in Gracie’s voice is impossible to miss.
“Eleanor was so happy. She thought her whole life would change, Don would buy her a big house, she would move out of her little apartment.”
Gracie turns the photograph in her hands.
“She had such a kind heart that she would have happily had the baby even without all that, but Don insisted she get rid of it. He took her to a dentist, not even a proper doctor. He did the surgery in his basement. Eleanor bled out.”
A shout from outside the dressing room door, a call for Gracie to be back on set. Gracie clenches her jaw, and again, Cat thinks she sees the shadow of wings spread behind her, an awful and glorious fiery bird.
“Here.” Gracie pushes the photograph back into Cat’s hand.
Gracie is already at the door, but she turns, smile sorrow-touched.
“Don’t worry, I’m not human, remember? I’m a miracle. And so are you.”
The closes with a soft click behind her. Cat stands, staring after her, until the sound of something heavy being dragged across the floor just on the other side of the door jolts her from her reverie. All at once, with terrible certainty, Cat knows exactly what Gracie means to do. The photograph falls from numb fingers, a leaf in her wake as Cat runs to the door. She falls against it, banging her shoulder painfully, but the door only opens an inch. Through the gap, Cat sees one of the bags of sand used for raising and lowering painted backdrops wedged in front of the door.
She throws her weight against the door again. It shudders, moving a fraction. She does it again and again, her shoulder bruising, until finally the gap is wide enough for her to wiggle free. She runs, her chest already feeling like it’s full of smoke, leaving it impossible to breathe.
She skids to a halt, a shout caught and dying before reaching her lips. She’s too late.
Gracie stands upon Joan’s pyre, her chin lifted. A soft glow, as of reflected flame, suffuses her skin. She looks like a saint, serene and fierce and terrible.
Extras surround her, false torches in their hands. Before one of them can move, flames erupt from Gracie’s skin. The ropes binding Gracie fall away. She lifts her arms and the flames surge, leaping free of the pyre and running across the studio floor.
Confusion becomes chaos. Screaming. Cat lurches towards Gracie, but someone bowls into her running the other way and knocks her down. Thick smoke fills the air. Cat struggles to her hands and knees. Glass explodes, a soft popping sound. She can’t see anything. Heat batters her, her eyes stream. Flames lick their way toward her, but when they nip at her heels, she feels no pain.
Don’t worry, I’m not human, remember? I’m a miracle. And so are you.
The words echo in Cat’s mind. Gracie. There’s nothing she can do.
Someone lifts her, drags her along. Suddenly Cat is outside, stumbling and coughing, bodies all around her. There’s a whoomp of displaced air and the studio roof collapses, sending a shower of sparks into the air. The press of the crowd shoves Cat backwards, but her eyes remain locked to the sky. The rising smoke and the sparks sketch a shape. A bird with spread wings, its beak a blade holding the sun as it shoots upward, a falling star in reverse.
Then all at once the crowd falls away from her, and someone screams. It’s a moment before the words penetrate, and Cat looks down.
And she is. Not just her arms this time, but all of her. She does nothing to smother the flames, but lets them rage, her face tilted to the sky.
“Yes,” she says. “Yes I am.”
She squints in the sunlight. The way it glints off the water, it’s like a swarm of fireflies, a shower of sparks. Like the studio burning all over again, and she tilts her head back to look at the sky. But there’s only a pure, aching blue, sketched with wispy clouds.
After all the talking, her throat is parched. The girl beside her, the young woman—Cecily, was it?—hands her a bottle of water. The plastic sweats; there’s a young man selling them from a cooler full of ice.
“I believe this is the part where you tell me everything I said is impossible.” She sips, smiling. She’s used to being called impossible.
This is still a place of miracles, even if the world has moved on.
“It’s a wonderful story.” Cecily sounds more wistful than anything else.
She glances at her phone. Perhaps she’s waiting for a call, for bad news, or a message that will never come. The old woman pats the back of the girl’s hand where it wraps around the screen, protectively, or as if she would bury it.
“I suspect we should head back,” she says, even though she isn’t precisely sure what back means now.
For a moment, she can believe they’ll cross the water and find themselves in long-vanished Luna Park, or return to her tiny, one-room apartment in the heart of old Brooklyn. After that, wasn’t there a grand house? Somewhere along the shore, filled with voices, laughter. Only girls at first—lighter than air and swooping about the ceilings on invisible wings. Then, later, boys with eyes like cracking ice and voices like rushing rivers who could slip their skins by the dark of night. Later still, lost children who were neither boys nor girls who could chant solid objects into new shapes, or turn as invisible as glass. Miracles, all. Like her.
“Yes. Sorry.” Cecily rubs at her eye with the back of her hand, a movement so quick it might not be the shine of a tear she chases away.
She reaches to help the old woman, but Nan pushes herself up. Nan—it’s as good a name as any, for now.
“There are still miracles,” Nan says as they walk away from the pier and the imagined remains of Maryville beneath the waves. She doesn’t look at Cecily, but she feels Cecily look at her, a curious mixture of surprise and a fraction of hope.
“When you feel that heat on the wrong side of your skin,” Nan says, looking straight ahead into the bustling streets of Brooklyn—when, not if. “And you feel like if you don’t do something about it, you’ll explode, come talk to me again.”