By Laura J. Mixon
Greetings, fellow Wildcardians!
Last fall I appeared on these pages to dish on my own origin story as a Wild Cards writer. My post was about two stories I wrote for the Card Sharks trilogy, and the two characters I created for them: one a joker and the other a nat. Less well known is that I’ve also created an ace, and his story—or at least most of it—has yet to be told. So for this post, I’m going to let you in on a bit of his background.
The Candle’s Origin
Back in 2006, if I’m remembering correctly, George kicked off a new Wild Cards set, the Committee trilogy. I knew I wouldn’t have time to pitch a story for the impending book at that stage of my life—work and parenting commitments didn’t permit. Still, I wanted to rekindle my connection to the people and the milieu of Wild Cards. So I pitched a character to play a contestant in the fictional reality-show American Hero.
His wallet name is John Montaño and he’s from Durango, Colorado. His ace name is the Candle and (in case it’s not obvious) he’s a flame-wielder, with a twist. (More on that later.) He gets one or two mentions in the books, and has a confessional as well.
When he first appears, John has just turned twenty. He’s out as bisexual to his friends, but not to the newspapers. John is Cubano-American on his dad’s side and Irish-American on his mom’s. He’s quite the cutie, too, tall and lanky—almost 6’5” in bare feet, with a splash of freckles you could only see in close-ups. He’s physically fit and a natural performer. And he has brown eyes rimmed by thick lashes, and a mop of dark hair.
John performs well in American Hero, but the competition is fierce, and he doesn’t quite manage to win the million bucks he was vying for. He flames out in the semi-final round, finishing fourth out of twenty-eight.
Is that all there is to know about this guy? By no means.
The Candle’s Handle
One thing that’s never been revealed before is how the Candle got his ace name. It happened in the months before his first American Hero audition, while he was still trying to figure out how to control his ace.
If you read Inside Straight, you may already know that Candle’s flames come in a range of hues, and that each color has its own unique properties. What wasn’t revealed was just how hard it was for him to learn how to summon and control the flames. Now, I’m not going to let you in on all my secrets in this post (not even going to come close, in fact; bwa-ha-ha!), but suffice it to say that initially, he had a lot of difficulty controlling his ace. It took forever to learn how to summon the flames at will—and another forever to learn to control them. Sometimes it wouldn’t come when he called. Other times it came… but only when and how he didn’t want it to.
One example, just to give you an idea. John was a snowboard and ski instructor for three winters, in Colorado. And like most of the other young people doing this seasonal work, he was also on the search-and-rescue team. One early spring, shortly before the slopes were closed for the winter, dispatch sent them out to look for an eight-year-old whose parents had reported her lost.
They were sweating it this time. For one, it was a kid. Sunset was approaching, and only a few hours after that, a snowstorm would hit—which meant high winds and even crappier visibility than just nightfall. The state police were en route with dogs and choppers; still. It was a kid. So they got everybody out who could safely stay atop a pair of skis.
John was one of the best skiers, so he the team working their way across the icier, harder-to-ski runs at the farthest reach of the ski area. It wasn’t super strength that powered him, only adrenaline, but he ended up well ahead of his team, because he was losing hope they’d find her in time. And spoiler alert: he was the one who did. Yay! That wasn’t the point, though; it was what happened when he did.
The young girl had gotten injured (as John learned later; while they waited in the clinic for her parents, she’d told her rescuers what had happened) when she attempted a slope that may not have been way beyond her skill—she swore it wasn’t—but it was a bad slope for skiing: half ice and strewn with rocks sticking up through the snow.
She’d tripped on one of those rocks and gone into a tumble, and bashed into a tree. The tree was in a shadowed crevice at the bottom of a hellishly steep, black-diamond run that was supposed to be closed. The fall had broken her tibia and a couple of ribs, and knocked her out. When she came to, the shadows were growing long, and she yelled herself hoarse, truly scared.
But she knew people would be looking for her, so she stopped yelling, drew her knees up to her chest, braving the pain, and hugged her legs to conserve body heat. And this is where the Candle, as he’s known now, comes in. For once John’s leaky powers turned out to have an upside.
Because John had been anxious about finding her (the fact that he had a little sister he hadn’t seen in years just might have had something to do with it), he started shedding dribbles of flame, like most people sweat.
The flames (being his yellow flames, were hot) rose against the darkening sky and lit him up. This made him quite visible to the kid when he crested the hill.
The girl gave a croak as loud as she could and waved. John spotted the faint movement. He thought he heard something. So he yelled back, and got yet another croak in answer. It was her.
John’s teammates were headed across the ridge. He reached for his walkie-talkie—and realized he’d neglected to snap the securing strap and it had fallen out somewhere (hey; these things happen!). So he shouted to them and gestured down the slope. One of them gave an answering wave. This time, when he called for the flames, they came, and he blasted a tower of yellow brilliance into the sky to alert the rest of the searchers. Then he shoved himself over the lip of the slope and headed down to the girl.
Once the flames started coming, though, he couldn’t turn them off. Oh, it was a sight to behold! There was John, swerved back and forth across the slope, flames rolling off his back and trailing behind him as if he were a living firecracker. It lit up the way as he wove a path through moguls and stones, left and right. He leaned over the top of his skis, building up speed, and as multi-colored flame gobbets rolled off him and rose into the air. And which—if he’d had a thought to spare, he’d have been mortified to —were issuing out of his bum like the world’s worst, searing case of the runs.
Fortunately, the little girl never ratted him out. She was far too grateful. And after he managed to scrounge up enough of his healing green flame to mend her broken bones, maybe she also figured she owed him.
UN-fortunately, his team mates reached the top of the hill in time to saw, too.
But enough of these embarrassing tales. Let’s give the man his privacy. Other than to note that the ski-slope incident I’ve described was by no means the only time during his stay in Durango that flames issued from orifices or edifices he’d never intended them to, and-or at some of the most inopportune times.
The Following Autumn
Shortly before his American Hero audition, John had managed to gain enough control that the worst of his leakages and blockages were a thing of the past. He no longer had store and restaurant owners asking him to leave their establishments for fear of setting things alight, and the landlord at his apartment reduced his ace-hazard rental surcharge by half.
But once you get a certain reputation, it’s hard to get rid of it. Word had long since gotten around, and now, coming up with ace handles for him had become a source of frequent amusement for his buddies.
In a way, it was also his fault. If he’d told them to quit it right away, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten so carried away. But John had a bit of an imp in him, and that imp wasn’t always on his side. At first, he was as amused as the rest. But after a while….well, John is pretty laid-back. He can take a joke. But after five months of enduring these “suggestions” for handles, like ‘Jet-Pack Jack,’ ‘Rocket Man,’ ‘Cannon Ball Runs,’ ‘The Sparkler,’ and ‘Towering Inferno’ (to name just a few), even John’s stores of patience had worn thin.
But he just tuned them out and kept at it, practicing and practicing. And the fall after the big flaming rescue, something—just—clicked. Like that! He had it. He had control of his ace.
On Tuesday evenings, the ski-slopes/ search-and-rescue gang met at a local bar for happy hour and a game of pool. When John walked in that next Tuesday, one of the newer guys, Lucas, announced in too loud a voice,
“Hey, look! Hey, John!”
Here we go, John thought. “Hi Lucas.”
“Look, guys—It’s Burning Man! Or hey, how about Burning Boy? Or Burning Buns! Hot Cross Buns!”
“You’re right. I’m getting a bit cross,” John replied.
Lucas clapped him on the shoulder. “Just ribbing you. No hard feelings.”
“Sure. No hard feelings.”
Then Lucas snapped his fingers. “Oh wait! Yeah… see, I totally have to do this.”
John gave him a tight little smile. Talisha said, “Lucas, knock it off. Can’t you see he’s had enough?”
But Lucas wasn’t listening. “Seriously; you’ll love it,” he told John. “How about”—he spread his hands out between them, as if revealing a banner in the air between them— “‘Fire-in-the-H-h-h—OHHH-LEE SHIT!!!”
The last bit came out as a terrified shriek, and everyone turned to look—and started screaming, themselves. When Lucas had snapped his fingers, John started making sweeping motions with his hands, as if he were weaving invisible threads together. And by the time Lucas made it to ‘Fire-in the-,’ twin streams of red flame had begun to jet from John’s fingers. The jets formed a fire tornado over Lucas’s head that brushed the ceiling, and descended over him. It engulfed Lucas whole, and began whirling as it spun around the room.
One of the wait-staff grabbed the fire extinguisher and gave the tornado a blast as it zoomed past—whose only effect was to dust the tornado with a whirling cloud of what looked like powdered sugar—while John’s friends and co-workers, not to mention a few strangers, knocked over chairs and drinks as they dodged out of its way.
Finally John lowered his hands. The fire tornado slowed down, and red flames melted away like warm Jell-O. And there was Lucas, on his hands and knees, panting hard, but otherwise unharmed. Because (as John knew then, but few others did) the red flames were harmless; as cool to the touch as cotton candy, in fact, if a good deal more binding, and goopier.
A hush fell. Everyone blinked. All eyes went to Lucas, now struggling to his feet. He was the new guy, and nobody knew quite how he would react. And then their gazes flicked over to John, who was leaning against the pool table, looking (and feeling, I might add) unbearably pleased with himself.
After a tense pause, John gave Lucas a bright smile. “All in good fun, Lucas. No hard feelings.”
Lucas gave him a foul look, lips pressed together. He gathered his ale and went to sit somewhere else.
John turned back to the others.
“Good! We can now dispense with the ace name game. Because I’ve chosen my own.” He lifted his arms and raised his voice so everyone in the whole bar could hear.
“Friends, humans, gentle beings,” he said; “lend me your ears!” He drew a breath, struck a pose—”I give you”—and lit himself up—“the Roman Candle.”
Such a sight it was! Rainbow flames crowned his head in a teardrop shape, like a candle flame. More flame gobbets orbited him, whizzing around like miniature moons on meth. If only there’d been smart phones back then, they could have captured it and put it up on Pinterest! But it’s lost in the mists of myth and legend.
What with all that blinding energy roiling around him—the alternating waves of heat and frigid cold; the hiss and fizzle and faint tinge of burning hair—and given what had just happened with Lucas and the flame-nado just now—the inherent whimsy of John’s appearance didn’t quite cancel out the fear in his team mates’ hearts.
But it was John. Who’d never hurt a flea. He was the kind of guy who, if you had to pick one person to have terrifying super powers, you’d pick him, because he was such a softie. Somehow, his puppy-like air assuaged the others’ concerns. So they all forgave him for terrifying them—twice. And once it was safe to approach, they came up and punched him in the shoulder and complimented him on his choice of handle. (Other than Lucas, of course. And the bartender, who was scowling at him for causing a ruckus.)
Talisha came over once things had settled down. She was sipping at her drink. Knowing her, probably just tonic water and lime.
John shoved his hands into his jean pockets, suddenly bashful. “Hey.”
“I wonder if we could talk?” she asked. His eyes widened and his heart rate increased. He followed her over to a small table.
“So-o-o-o,” she said, and John hoped she was about to ask him out. But no. “That was kind of a mean trick to play on Lucas, you know. He’s hardly ever teased you before. Nigel and Robbie have called you far worse names, and a lot more of them.”
John glanced over at Robbie and Nigel, who were huddled together at the bar and studiously not looking over at him.
John turned back to Talisha. “You’re right. I just snapped, I guess.”
“You’ve never gone off on anyone like that before. It was really scary, John.”
John’s cheeks felt so hot that for an instant, he wondered if he was leaking flames again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
She nodded her head in Lucas’s direction. “He’s the one you should apologize to, you know…Be the bigger man.”
“But—wait a minute, he’s bigger than I am!”
She sighed. “Oh, John… You know what I mean. He’s the new guy. And he’s probably feeling pretty low right now. He was just trying to fit in.”
John looked at Lucas, off in the corner. “I guess you’re right.”
Talisha laid her hand on his bicep, and he shivered. Instant boner. He bit his lip.
“You’re such a good person,” she said. “You’re doing the right thing.”
“Not as good as I should be, I’m afraid.” The truly good person here is you, he thought. They sat there silently for a long pause, sharing eye contact, but he couldn’t—quite—work up the nerve to ask her out. Not after this. She must think I’m a real ass.
And then she said good-bye, and headed back over to the table where several of her women friends were.
Idiot, he thought. You’re a fucking idiot, Juan-Ma.
After a minute or two, he headed over to Lucas’s booth. “So…you OK?”
Lucas looked up from under his brows. “You singed my balls, asshole.”
“Bullshit. The red flames aren’t even hot.” John slid onto the bench in across from Lucas. More quietly, he asked, “Anybody watching?”
Lucas leaned over and looked past John. “Nah. That girl who’s sweet on you—”
“Who? Talisha?” He wished he could turn around and look.
“That’s right. Talisha is over at the pool table now with Gemma, and most of the group is watching them play.”
“Really?” He wished he could look. Lucas chuckled. “Oh, so you’re into her, too, are you?”
The waiter came by, and John showed him his fake ID. “Rum and coke, please.”
After the waiter left, Lucas leaned back, one arm over the back of the booth bench. “You may applaud me now. I thought I pulled that off rather well.”
John laughed, and gave him a slow clap. “Oscar-grade performance.” He leaned forward on an elbow. “Seriously, I owe you. Thanks again.”
“Nah. The jokes were getting old anyway. I can’t believe you let it go on as long as you did.” He took another swig. “And I don’t think you’ll have to worry about Robbie and Nigel messing with you anymore.”
“They might start in on you now.”
“I can handle those two.” Lucas glanced over at them. John wasn’t the only guy Robbie and Nigel had been picking on that season.
“And how about my performance?” John asked, laying a hand on his chest. “Amazing? Or merely magnificent?”
Lucas suppressed a smile. “Epic. Fucking terrifying, in fact. But…”
“Well… it’s the handle.”
“You don’t like it?”
“My opinion? Lose the ‘Roman.’ It’s corny.”
“I kinda liked it. You know; Roman? Latin? And with a hint of”—he made air quotes—“‘Romannnnce.’ Get it?”
Lucas shrugged. “Eh. Like I said. Corny.”
John thought it over, frowning. “Just Candle, then…hmmm.”
“The Candle. And yeah, It’s snappier. It suits you. ‘Cause you’re all tall and slim and lithe, you know. Whimsical and soulful at the same time. A tad fey.”
Fey?? John gave him a sharp look, but his expression hadn’t changed. He only shrugged. “Up to you.” Lucas downed the last of his pale ale, tossed a twenty onto the table, and got up.
John masked a pang of disappointment. “Headed out?”
“Yeah. Got an early shift tomorrow.”
“At least let me get your drink,” John said, reaching for his wallet, but Lucas’s big hand landed on John’s wrist and pinned it to the table top.
“Not necessary.” He tightened his grip when John tried to pull away, and John’s heart started to pound. Did I piss him off after all?
Lucas chuckled. “Relax, doofus.” He leaned close enough that John could feel his breath on his cheek. “My place. One hour. If you’re so inclined. Ya hottie, you.”
Then he released John’s wrist and stood. John’s mouth fell open.
Lucas smiled. “And maybe you can show me what other tricks you can get up to those fancy flames of yours.”
The waiter brought John’s drink, and John took a mouthful, watching Lucas walk away. Mmm-mm. Looked like it wouldn’t be such a lonely night, after all.