Pam watched the dorm burn. She stood with the crowd of onlookers, phones and tablets held up to capture how the flames licked at the windows, vomiting black smoke, thick from the feast of plastic it had found in every room.
Theresa came over, weeping in a way which Pam found unsightly. The histrionics of someone who saw the world through a filter of utter solipsism. She reached out her thin arms and threw herself into Pam’s arms.
Pam patted Theresa between her shoulder blades, perfunctory gestures interpreted as awkwardness but were about her distaste for physical contact. Pam had built herself an ideology which avoided the messy business of sex through a seething bolus of gender variations. The likes of Theresa challenged her but tonight her drama would prove useful.
‘Who’s done this?’ Theresa said.
She devolved into a series of wet, rough brays before Pam shushed her and kept on patting her back as though it meant anything.
Pam watched the crowd. A news van had parked at the end of the row and she turned Theresa around without speaking. Theresa sniffed and wiped her face.
The Dean of Students, bleary-eyed and grimacing made his way through the crowds. His silver hair stuck up from his head in soft tufts like dandelions, which offset the melancholy raptor features of his face, furrows from a perpetual frown and thin, pale lips. He taught American Literature before accepting the Dean’s position and Pam imagined he would press lots of old white authors upon them. He had changed into a white shirt and sweater, smelled of cologne as he saw her.
‘An absolute tragedy, Pam. I’m so sorry.’
Pam collected apologies from authority figures. This one was not up to the standards of the soft drink manufacturer or the best-selling author of the young adult trilogy but it was a good start.
‘Thank you, Dean. I have prepared a statement.’ Pam said.
He frowned and looked around him.
‘The fire’s not even out, Pam. Give yourself time to process this.’ he said.
Pam’s lips drew back over her teeth before she caught herself. She pushed Theresa aside.
‘Acts like this demand an immediate response.’ she said.
She had practiced it in the mirror, perfected the lift of the chin and the slight turn of profile.
The dean sighed and gave a short, terse nod.
‘But I would argue the use of the word act. It has connotations.’ he said.
Pam pointed to the blazing dorm, fighting the urge to give into her emotions, not from fearing their impact but because it was too early.
No one was watching.
‘The only connotations I see is an old white man playing down an act of ethno-gender terrorism.’
Pam enjoyed how he shuddered.
‘Now I think you should -‘
Pam’s heart leapt in her chest, higher than the flames in the dorm room.
‘You think, Dean. What should I think?’ she said
She raised her voice. People turned, their phones already ahead of them.
The news camera pointed at her. Its lens was a shining white disc, a medal for her sacrifice.
She started into her monologue. The firemen in the background added just the right note of disaster to proceedings. Her face was lit from within, eyes aflame with self-righteousness and the joy of wounded victimhood. In the weeks afterwards, she watched it a hundred times.
Protest footage with clusters of students marching and holding placards.
Aggressive scenes in the library, earphones snatched from ears and snarling challenges into the pinched faces of other students.
An investigation. The arrest.
Pam in orange prison clothes, her face slack with acceptance.
When the dean collapsed with a heart attack, Pam would have celebrated but she was too busy fighting off a bull who wanted to get romantic without having to memorise Pam’s preferred pronouns during pillow talk.
Before sleep, she remembered the orange glow of the flames and the desire to stay and watch it burn away her privilege..
The memory kept her warm. Whether there was enough to see her through ten years remained unknown.