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(You) Set Me on Fire

Mariko Tamaki



  Writer and performer MARIKO TAMAKI has garnered much acclaim for both her written and performance-based work. The graphic novel Skim (with Jillian Tamaki) was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and received numerous other accolades, including the Doug Wright Award for Best Graphic Novel. You can follow Mariko on her blog at and on Twitter at @marikotamaki.

  Also by Mariko Tamaki

  Skim (with Jillian Tamaki)

  Emiko Superstar (with Steve Rolston)

  Fake ID

  True Lies: A Book of Bad Advice

  Cover Me

  (you) set

  me on fire

  mariko tamaki


  an imprint of Penguin Canada

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

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  Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland in situations like these from %;margin-left: 0em; (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

  Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

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  Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published 2012

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (WEB)

  Copyright © Mariko Tamaki, 2012

  Lyrics from “Teenage Romanticide” by Dance Yourself to Death used with permission.

  All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

  Publisher’s note: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Manufactured in Canada.

  * * *


  Tamaki, Mariko

  (You) set me on fire / Mariko Tamaki.

  For ages 14+

  ISBN 978-0-14-318093-7

  I. Title. II. Title: You set me on fire.

  PS8589.A768Y69 2012 jC813’.6 C2012-903188-7

  * * *

  Visit the Penguin Canada website at

  Special and corporate bulk purchase rates available; please see or call 1-800-810-3104, ext. 2477.

  * * *

  I was a victim of teenage romanticide, and in the wrong.

  I was a victim of teenage romanticide, but not for long.


  A brief but necessary descent into flames

  This is a story about college, about fire, and also about love.

  Before going to college at the age of seventeen, I’d been in love once (total catastrophe) and on fire twice (also pretty bad). In fact, I almost didn’t get to go to college at all because I accidentally set myself on fire in an incident that was at least partly connected in some way to love.

  When I say “accidentally,” I mean that there was fire and there was me but the almost fatal combination of the two was not some sort of big master plan. It wasn’t a suicide fire, if there is such a thing. It was more of a “whoops” fire, an “I can’t believe I set myself on fire” kind of fire. A “holy shit” fire.

  You get the picture.

  Of course, what makes the whole thing kind of complicated to explain was the fact that when I accidentally set myself on fire a month before I was supposed to go to St. Joseph’s College, it wasn’t the first time I’d been on fire that year, or even that summer. Although, I should point out, the first time I was on fire, it wasn’t really my fault.

  If anyone was to blame for my first fire, it was this girl, Julia.

  Julia was the only girl in my high school more unpopular than I was. I was the kind of person people avoided, I would guess, because I emanated waves of uncool. No matter what I did, I was uncool. It was an ugly sweater I could never get rid of. At some point I just took to wearing ugly sweaters and jeans. Why not embrace it? Better than looking like you’re fighting for a hopeless cause. What is that saying, dressing up a pig? Or something.

  I’m not saying I’m a pig, but you get the idea.

  Julia was scary unpopular, the girl everyone avoided because she was clearly insane. One time in grade five she “carelessly but not necessarily purposefully” (according to our principal) broke Susan Levine’s hand by stepping on it a number of times. In grade ten she mistakenly threw acid into Sarah Mather’s knapsack in chemistry when she didn’t get picked for the basketball team. The only reason why Julia wasn’t kicked out of school was her billionaire grandfather, who invented diets f. Looked at 0 screamor rich people.

  After the acid thing, supposedly they put her on medication that made hurting other people less of a probability.

  Technically, it was Julia who invited me to prom. She’d cornered me at my locker a week before what our school was calling “A Night of Magic” and announced, in a voice that was slightly unsteady, that her boyfriend had been arrested for assault and so she had two “Magic” tickets and a limo but no date.

  How could I say no, especially with Julia huffing and puffing in an unnatural way an inch from my face?

  I’m sure that any relief my parents felt when they heard I was going to prom was obliterated the minute Julia cruised up in her SUV limo, hanging out of the sunroof with a bottle of Diet Spritz that clearly wasn’t Diet or Spritz and a face full of runny mascara, looking like a psychopathic jack-in-the-box on wheels.

  At some point, possibly while I was taking the first of many slugs of Julia’s non-pop in order to wash down a small yellow pill she’d handed me when I shuffled into the limo, Julia, who had apparently forgotten that SHE invited ME to prom, leaned over and mumbled, “If it sucks, I’m going to be mad.”

  “It won’t suck,” I said.

  I won’t go into the specifics, but of course it did blow, both in the way all proms suck because the reality of prom can never live up to the promise, and in the way proms suck when you don’t have a posse and are instead the drunken member of an army of two.

  By the end of the night, sitting in the backyard of Dawn Garner, class president, Julia was a stretch lace and velvet ball of mess.

  “It’s good we’re getting out of here,” she slurred. “All the people at this school are assholes.”

  True, I thought, silently chewing on the word with my brain because I was too drunk and drugged at the time to say anything out loud.

  The incendiary part of this story happened shortly after that statement. Apparently, sometime around midnight, Susan—the same Susan whose hand Julia had mashed in grade five—came out into the backyard and called Julia something not very nice. Julia retaliated by throwing her beer and yelling something about Susan having herpes. Susan called Julia a “freak show” and then Julia stood up, held out her
cigarette to me, and said, “Hold this.”

  Or “Take this.”


  Unfortunately, just as Julia was getting ready to kick ass, I was in the process of passing out, a course of action that involved me slowly checking out of my brain and body until all was black and quiet. So I wasn’t paying all that much attention to what Julia was saying or what she was doing with her lit cigarette. How it came to be that Julia’s cig ended up wedged into the pink plastic rose corsage pinned to my dress strap instead of between my index and middle finger, I do not know. It’s possible that I wedged the cigarette in there myself, although I have no memory of doing this. What I do know is that, as Julia was curling her manicured hands around Susan’s boyfriend’s neck, I was smouldering. Literally. Thankfully, just as the plastic roses began melting into my neck, I woke up and, with a ninjatype grace, threw my Coke on myself before I dropped to the ground.

  Someone, jumping the gun things I needed to be doingye c slightly, yelled, “Fire!”

  The thing that occurred to me later, as I sat in the ER surrounded by an evening’s worth of the broken, the bleeding, and the barfing, was how weird it is that people are apparently more likely to come running when someone yells “Fire” than when someone yells “Help” or “Rape.”

  I’ve always wanted to test that theory, but I figure the consequences for yelling “Help” or “Fire” if you don’t need help and you’re not on fire are pretty major. I should try yelling “Help” the next time I’m on fire, I suppose. See if that makes a difference.

  Although, you know, I was thinking about it and, okay, so doesn’t this whole “Help” and “Fire” thing make women who need help and yell “Fire!” into liars?

  I think that (also) kind of sucks.

  I guess it suggests that sometimes there are good reasons for lying about these things.

  Standing in front of my parents in the living room at three a.m., post-prom, I tried to be as vague as possible in describing the sequence of events that had led to a ponytail’s worth of singed hair and a hornet’s nest of nasty-looking blisters on my left shoulder. I focused on the fact that the paramedics who’d taken me to the hospital—largely, I insisted, out of precaution—had told me that prom was a particularly bad time to get set on fire because everyone wears really flammable stuff and then gets loaded. I asked one paramedic if this meant that lots of kids are set on fire at their proms.

  “Nope,” the guy taking my pulse said. “You’re the first.”

  Apparently, the biggest injury that happens at prom is alcohol poisoning. No big surprise.

  Twisting the handle on the bag that contained my singed prom dress and heels, I did my best to put a positive spin on the whole situation.

  “Other than the really, really small fire,” I gushed, “I had a really good time. Really. Great DJ.”

  My father, still in pyjamas and bathrobe, sighed heavily.

  My mother stood and grabbed the aloe plant sitting on the windowsill. “Go get your pyjamas on and meet me in the kitchen,” she said. “Let’s see if we can at least avoid a scar.”

  The second time I was on fire was more what you’d actually call being on fire, flames instead of embers. It happened as I was in the process of burning some possessions, including some childhood relics and a select group of memories I’d held onto from a certain person. (Okay. Her name is Anne. I will talk about her later.) I figured that a fire would be more fun than just scooping everything up in a big garbage bag, so I constructed a funeral pyre in the backyard on the rock platform my dad had made for us to roast marshmallows over when I was a kid.

  I was listening to “Forever Young” on my iPod and watching the sparks from my small collection of notes/letters, cradled in the arms of some old stuffed animals, climb into the night sky. Just as I started lip-synching the chorus I noticed a pool of toxic chemicals, presumably the melting remains of formerly happy plastic-animal faces, sliding off the rock platform and into my mother’s bed of perennials. As I turned to kick dirt onto the sludge, my cape caughem;} .textstyletoDot fire.

  I should add here that this was a magic cape my mom made me years ago for a school play, and that I was wearing it because it just happened to be packed up with the stuffed animals. It’s not like I’m the sort of person who wears a cape on any regular basis.

  So once again it was all stop, drop, and roll.

  And this time it was my neighbours, who’d been watching my antics while they sat and drank their nightly sherry, who called 911.

  After I’d managed to set myself on fire for a second time, I think my parents were sincerely considering locking me up in some sort of cage instead of sending me off to college. I’m sure they were a bit torn because, on the one hand, I had clearly become the world’s most troublesome daughter and they were kind of happy about the idea of getting rid of me and having the place to themselves. On the other hand, their precarious love for me made them worried, I think, that if they left me to my own devices I would blow myself up.

  It was about this time, I’m sure, that they started seriously regretting their bright idea to fast-track me into high school by skipping grade eight, a decision they’d made on the basis of a single (but apparently important) aptitude test I don’t even remember taking. One test score earned at the age of eleven and I spent my early teen years being that little bit less mature than the people around me. Hard to say if that really matters. Aren’t all teenagers immature?

  My dad said he wanted to think on it before he’d agree to sign the parental-consent section of my St. Joseph’s residence acceptance form. He thought about it for three days. I don’t know what made up his mind, but on the day he told me he would sign the form, my dad gave me a big lecture about “decision-making” and me and what I’d been doing with my young life.

  At the time, my skin was still sore to the touch. The blisters from my first burn had healed only to be eclipsed by a new rash of crispy soreness. The area around my shoulder and neck was a patchwork quilt of hard bits and baby skin. Parts of my body looked like something you’d find spinning behind the counter at a gyro restaurant.

  “I just want you to think, Allison,” he said, “about what it means that this has happened to you twice. Just think about it, okay?”


  “I know you’ve had—” My father struggled at the best of times with emotional topics. The only way he could talk to me about any of this stuff was to be doing some sort of physical labour in the process. For example:

  Drugs → Fixing the Toilet

  Pregnancy → Mowing the Lawn

  (And you know, for that last one I could barely hear him, so for the longest time I thought I’d be going on some sort of “bill.”)

  He was washing the dishes when he approached the subject of me and my recent series of misfortunes. “I know you’ve had some trouble. I know there was that girl.”



  “No, but. It doesn’t matter.”

  “I know she was important,” I said">OH to you. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’ve had kind of a … a tough break with that.”


  It’s painful to see the effects of your messed-up-ness reflected in the eyes of the people you care about.

  “You’re a smart girl.”


  “Maybe you could be a little bit … smarter.”


  I remember looking at the sun hitting my dad’s hands as he scratched little bits of food that looked like my scabs off a dinner plate.

  “Get me that form for your residence and a pen.”

  And with that, I was officially off to St. Joseph’s.

  I know some people funnel a lot of their hopes and dreams into their college choice. I did too, but not in that cheesy, fairy tale, “I wanna go to Harvard so I can become president” way you see in movies. I picked St. Joseph’s because, of the seven schools I applied to, it was as far away from my high sc
hool as I could manage on my (parents’) budget. (I’d also applied, on a whim, to go to this school in France and one in Russia but I didn’t get in, probably because I had such crappy marks in French and Russian.) Based on an informal poll, I’d calculated that it was also the only college no other people from my graduating class would be attending. No less than five states and two bodies of water separated it from most of the people I knew.

  Driving to St. Joseph’s, I took a closer look at my final acceptance papers and noticed that the college mascot, which I’d originally thought was an eagle (like every other college mascot), was a phoenix.

  I’ve never actually read the myth of the phoenix. This may seem surprising, or maybe it’s not, because no one reads anything anymore. I wouldn’t even know where to start looking for it. I’m sure it isn’t just in some book written by some guy. It’s probably in a collection. To find that collection I’d probably have to know what KIND of myth it is. And I don’t.

  What I do know, I know from Harry Potter and Wikipedia. I know that the phoenix—I think it’s a he—willingly enters the flames as a kind of ugly, weak, crispy old bird, and (maybe an hour) later, emerges from those flames vibrant and heroic, like something you’d expect to see in a commercial for something awesome.

  I know that the phoenix is no masochist, no accident-prone bird, although possibly the other birds would argue otherwise. I don’t picture the phoenix as being very social, more like the mad genius no one wants to eat lunch with. A non-social drinker.

  A possible drug abuser.

  I’m well acquainted with the perils of drugs because before we left, my dad got his sister, who’s a nurse, to put together a bunch of pamphlets about drug abuse and alcohol poisoning. I was supposed to be reading these pamphlets on the trip (with the possibility of a pop quiz during the last twenty-mile leg)—a trip my mother declined to join because long roads (and my dad’s driving habits on long roads) make her queasy. Hilariously, for some reason, the jog across the country reminded my dad of all his fun-filled college days. So for most of the ride I ended up listening to stories things I needed to be doingye c about what my dad’s frat brothers got up to when he was at Michigan State U.