Essay: Ariel in Flames

   The fan whirs above our heads. It is strong, but the heat still creeps up our legs as we sit in my room. Ally is sixteen this year. She keeps telling me that I need to treat her like an adult, that I should trust her with the same things I trust Belinda with, we are sisters after all.

    She looks at me, begging for something to call her own. A secret that even the almighty Belinda doesn’t know yet. Belinda and I have shared a room and secrets for 19 years; she is only two years younger than me. I dig. I dig deep for something to tell Ally. She has always been so young; I never considered entrusting her with my life. Six years can be a world of difference if you let it.
And I let it. I always thought it would be too difficult to trust both of them. But now, with Belinda gone for the summer, Ally and I have been spending more time together. I want to feel as close to her as I do to Belinda.

    The heat is unforgiving. It bangs on the windows outside, reminding us that even in the nighttime we can still sweat.. The fan overhead wobbles from overuse. I’m sweating. Sweat falls in tendrils around my eyes.

    My bedroom is full of secrets, most of which Belinda knows. She was a part of most of them. They’re her secrets too. Ally sits on the floor near the door. When she was little, Belinda and I made her sit in the doorway to watch us play pretend. We never let her play. Just watch. From that spot in the doorway. There, but not really there. Somehow she is still on the outside of things.

    There, but not really there.

    I glance around my room and spot it. The Little Mermaid doll still locked in her plastic prison. I have had that doll since I was thirteen, too old to get a doll as a gift, but too young to realize it. The Ariel doll stares at me, her eyes wide and her hair a fiery mess. I stare back at her. Janine gave me that doll. She handed it to me and said, For my new daughter. I just know we are all going to get along so well. After whispering these words so only I could hear them, Janine walked over to my dad and entwined her fingers into his. A smile crept across her pale face. Her eyes blue as the ocean, blue as Ariel’s, watched me.

    The doll is still here; Janine isn’t.

    Ally waits. Her legs are crossed and her hands sit in her lap. I clear my throat. The noise sounds awkward as it swims through the thick heat towards Ally.

    “Okay, I got one,” I say.


 I can tell she is getting impatient. She is not going to sit in my doorway forever, and I don’t blame her.

    “See that doll?” I point to Ariel.


    “Janine gave her to me.”

    “Why the hell do you still have it?” Ally looks at me, shock and disgust in her eyes. I can hear her thinking, You kept something that nasty woman gave you? The woman who tortured us? The woman who made it a point to hurt us every day?

    “Look, I really never thought about it till today. I guess I kept it as a reminder. The day she gave it to me is the day she moved in.”

    “Yeah, so?”

    “So, I guess it holds some kind of spell on me. Metaphorically speaking of course.”

I add that last part on fast. The idea of Janine casting a spell on us isn’t so farfetched. For years she kept a shrine in our basement. Pentagrams, candles, strands of people’s hair, knives for sacrifice, and even crystals she claimed healed people’s wounds. Janine didn’t know Belinda and I had found that shrine. Hidden in a cabinet, there but not really there. We didn’t tell anyone until we knew Janine would be out of our lives forever. We were scared that we’d be the next lock of hair, tied neatly in a bow, resting next to the knives.

    “It’s been so many years. You haven’t even opened it.”

    “I’m afraid.” And there it is; my secret. I’m 22 years old and still scared of Janine.

    “Of what?”


    “Me too.”

    We sit in silence a while. The heat, choking the words in our throats, makes it hard to talk. Ally stands up and crosses the room. She stops directly in front of Ariel. She grabs the plastic case and holds it towards me.

    “Let’s burn her.”


    “Let’s. Burn. Her.” Ally looks at me, waiting for me to comprehend.

    “Al, no…”

    “Come on, Jo. It will be our secret.” The emphasis she put on the word our makes me want to burn it. Ally wants to share a secret with me and I want to share one with her. I stand up and search through my purse. It sits dead on my nightstand. I probe it, sliding my fingers across the inside lining until

I feel the smooth, cold plastic of my lighter.

    “Okay, don’t tell anyone. It’s our secret.” I emphasize the word our just like she did and smile. The idea of setting fire to something Janine gave me makes my stomach flop. It is the kind of flop you get before doing something exciting, but terrifying.

    “It will be like we’re burning Janine out of our lives. Like we’re burning her soul.” Ally’s eyes narrow and for a second I’m scared of her, too. “If she even had a soul,” she finishes the thought.

I laugh. I think Ally’s making a joke, but I can see that she truly believes that Janine is at least part-devil. And again, I don’t blame her. Janine shaved off all Ally’s hair when she was nine years old. She told Ally that she was ugly. I tried to stop it, but Janine was more powerful. She’d also cast her spell over my father.

We tip-toe down the hallway. Dad is snoring into his pillows, so we close the door quietly behind us. The night sky is clear, the air heavy. The moon hovers over us as we grab lighter fluid from next to Dad’s grill.

I drop the doll onto the grass. Even in the dark you can see the decaying brownness of the blades, the unforgiving heat. Ally grabs the doll back up and begins to tear her out of the package.

“What are you doing?”

“What she did to me.”

Now I see the scissors poking out of Ally’s back pocket. They glisten in the white moonlight. She grabs Ariel and cuts the doll’s red hair. It falls to the ground in clumps. When she’s done, she throws down the doll. Ariel lands upon her cut off hair as if it is a bed.
I douse the doll in lighter fluid. I see her drown in it. Ally hands me a piece of paper. Janine, is scrawled across it. I light it and the flames start to spread from the bottom corner. I drop the paper onto the doll.  We watch ashes float up toward the sky.
The smell of burning plastic surrounds us. We cover our noses, but we don’t move.

Ariel’s face begins to melt. It is barely a face now. No more blue eyes, no more red hair, no more Ariel. The Little Mermaid has drowned in flames that dance around the pool of plastic. Elated at being freed into the night, the flames slither across the lawn, turning brown whatever green grass we had left.

Ally grabs my hand.

She is smiling.

I hug her as the heat of the fire pokes at our legs.

Jorie Rao is a graduate student at Rowan University in the Writing Arts Master’s Program, where she wrote this memoir. The story takes place in her father’s backyard about two years ago.  Janine is not her stepmother’s real name.

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