Roy pelted down the hall as quick as he could, coughing all the while, his throat raw, his arms and legs sending pleas for merciful numbness which his brain rejected on the grounds of survival necessity. He needed to get out of this wretched place, now. He could worry about boo-boos later, along with the infinitely more fascinating question of how the hell he’d gotten into the building in the first place.
As Roy rounded a corner in the corridor, his left foot crashed down through weakened floorboards, dropping him into a posture that played well when kneeling before rulers of foreign lands but which did nothing for him save cause excruciating pain, as the jagged edges of the hole cut through his jeans into his leg, his groin protesting as it was violently stretched in a fashion most unwelcome. The grayish air around him, sucked through teeth already coated with a fine, gritty film, whomped his lungs joyfully, eliciting more wretching as he pried himself out of the floor.
“Goddamnit,” he groused, crawling a few feet through the soot layering the floor. He got to his feet as he reached the top of the stairs leading down to the building’s first floor, taking in the blackened wallpaper, the ruined carpeting, and what looked suspiciously like a husked out corpse of someone who’d been the victim of immolation. He slowly crept down the steps until he stood over the remains, curled into a futile ball of char, jawbone cocked open in a final scream that would never end.
Roy caught the stench of burned hair and flesh wafting from it, and squeezed his eyes shut as his stomach divested itself of its contents all over the unknown cadaver. Tears threatened at the back of his eyes, and he quickly shuffled the rest of the way down the stairs. The steps led to a living room, one which, prior to the damaging flames, had probably been richly decorated. Now, all lay in ruins, burned, scorched and reduced to scraps and ashes.
The metal of an entertainment system against one wall shimmered in a clump of molten slag. As Roy stared in terror at it, the building groaned around him, a sure sign that collapse was imminent.
He whipped his eyes about, located the front door, and made quickly for it, stepping over and around several more corpses, some of which still smouldered. Whatever had happened here, it was recent. How he seemed unharmed puzzled him, but Roy was a firm believer in asking questions when the chances of thinking clearly were better. He got outside, stumbling out onto a darkened porch.
Looking around, Roy realized that the house, which he hadn’t recognized from inside, was nearly half a mile from a main road, surrounded by dozens of acres of empty fields. There were woods to the north, which he began running toward as fast as he could, peering back once every minute or so to see if anyone else were around. By the time he made the woods, he could hear sirens approaching from town.
The house belonged, he remembered, to Tommy Harkin and his parents, a proud farming family living on the outskirts of Candleton. Tommy had been in his class, a fellow graduate of Jacobson High two years before. Roy’s head swam as he tried to think clearly about the evening prior to awakening in a smoky bedroom on the farmhouse’s second floor, and as he tripped over a tree root and hit the leaf-strewn ground, he remembered one thing clearly; Tommy had betrayed him.
Roy passed out again before recalling anything more.
When he came to, Roy flinched, a stream of water peppering down on his naked body from overhead. He was sitting in his bathtub, letting lukewarm water run over him. He figured that he’d blanked out again, and during the intervening fugue, managed to shag his ass home to his apartment.
Home was a tiny lunch box of an apartment over Jane’s Diner, which occupied the first floor of the building. The upstairs consisted of two apartments, one large one, owned and occupied by Jane Levitt, and this second, smaller unit which she usually rented out to any one of her four or five staff. It was in Roy’s hands at the moment.
“Fuck,” he muttered as a sharp pain stabbed at the back of his head. His shoulders complained at him, tense and tight, like a goblin with rickets had planted its feet there and decided to try digging gold out of his skull. Roy carefully stood up in the shower and proceeded to wash up, climbing out and wrapping himself in a towel before heading to his closet-sized bedroom to get dressed.
A quick check of his cell phone told him it was just after seven in the morning, Sunday. He wasn’t due to work that day, so he pulled on a servicable pair of jeans and a gray Oakland Raiders tee, then made his way to the kitchen. There wasn’t much clutter to speak of. Living alone, Roy didn’t own enough of anything for clutter to accumulate. It was a simple existence, but that suited him just fine. He had his books, his video games, and the internet. For a 20-year-old kid with no real plans, it was ideal.
Roy scratched his stubbled cheek, headed to the fridge, and opened the door for his orange juice. Instead, he shrieked upon seeing what sat on the shelves and slammed the door shut. Where his carton of milk and juice should have been sat a charred human skull, one eyeball still glistening wet from tears not burned away.
Hands over his mouth he cowered by the single sink, his entire body trembling. Warily, left hand holding his cell phone so he could call the police if needed, he approached the fridge and opened it quickly.
There sat his milk and juice. No skull, no staring, accusatory eyeball. Just liquids in semi-see through cartons. He sighed, stuffed his phone in his pocket, and grabbed the juice. He shut the fridge and poured himself a drink.
Taking a seat at the small writing desk in one corner of his living room, his usual haunt since he possessed no couch or comfortable seat aside from the rolling computer chair, Roy took up his television remote from a cubby and flipped on the ancient boxy set standing on a rickety entertainment center across the room. A local network affiliate, channel 6, sprang to low-definition life, an all-too-chipper anchorwoman in a red pantsuit center screen as she wrapped up something about a local event in town.
Roy sipped his juice as the anchor, Melissa Prett, continued the news. “In other news, tragedy strikes on the outskirts of Candleton in the form of a massive fire late last night. Fire and rescue teams, along with local police, tell us this morning that an overnight blaze at the home of Jacob and Kathy Harkin in the late hours of last night has destroyed their farmhouse and claimed the lives of at least seven people.”
Roy nearly sprayed orange juice all over the floor, instead swallowing hard and turning up the volume. Prett’s voice continued on as an aerial chopper camera showed an overhead angle shot of a smouldering ruins, the entire structure having collapsed, at least a dozen men and women in fire suits clambering about the wreckage in search of bodies or survivors. “As you can see, the fire completely destroyed the home where it took place. A motorist passing the home at four-thirty roughly called police to report the blaze, and when the first engines arrived twelve minutes later, the structure is said to have already collapsed. We’ll have more details as they become available.”
Roy clicked the television off, hands trembling, brow beaded with sweat. He shook his head and pivoted the chair so he was facing the desk as he opened his laptop, planted squarely before him. Roy opened up his internet browser and hopped onto Facebook.
He clicked on his messages, and found his eyes drawn to the grayed out box indicating his last message from Tommy. The stabbing pain pricked the back of his head again for just a second, and he clicked on the message.
The last back-and-forth he’d had with Tommy online was brief, an invitation for Roy to come to a party at the Harkin homestead. Tommy’s parents were visiting family in Kansas for two weeks, leaving free reign to their only son. Roy asked who would be there, and Tommy replied with a short list of names, only nine or ten in all. The one that had caught Roy’s attention the most, however, was Becky Kilburn, a girl they’d both graduated with and for whom he’d harbored the worst kind of crush.
Seeing this back-and-forth in his message history brought on a shortness of breath, and Roy soon sprang from his chair, opening the living room window and leaning his head out for fresh air. He now could look out over the street, catching sight of the early morning traffic coming through the area. A bus bound for the town’s only high school rumbled past, its diesel engine sounding wheezier than a tracheotomy patient who smoked through the hole in their neck.
The pungent tang of diesel exhaust forced his head back inside, but Roy didn’t return to the desk. His eyes squeezed shut, momentary flashes of the previous evening flitting over his mind’s eye.
Tommy’s living room, Keith MacCail standing right in front of him with a beer in hand, talking about how loose the pussy was at Iowa State University, the reek of sweat and gasoline wafting off of him.
The farmhouse’s kitchen, where Doug and Lisa Napolli are drunkenly arguing over which of them gets to tell their father they hate his guts first.
Stumbling into the bathroom to take a piss, the world a blur. Sam Walsh stands in the bathtub while Kendra Montague is kneeling in front of him, sucking his cock with the shower curtain open, neither sober enough to care who sees.
Finally mustering up the courage to pull Becky aside into Tommy’s room to tell her how he feels. Here everything becomes jittery, seconds missing, jumping to the room full of laughing onlookers, led by Tommy himself, whose guffaws echo loudest. There is indescribable heat running through him, and then
Nothing. There came nothing then, and Roy’s ears erupted in a high-pitched whine. He clamped his hands over them, dropping to his knees, groaning as the sound rose in pitch another notch. It faded after a minute, leaving him huddled on the floor, tears dripping off of his eyelashes. Had he been crying the whole time? He didn’t know, but his cheeks felt tense, stretched.
They felt like he’d been smiling.
Roy locked the doors of his beaten-down little Ford Tempo and walked slowly across the paking lot, heading into the bowling alley. He came there regularly on his days off, and on Wednesdays after work. He’d never joined the local league or inter-town circuits, always just dropping in, rolling a steady set of ten, then heading off. He occassionally played against some other folks he’d gone to school with, but only if they were already there and approached him for a competitive set.
Roy took a look around inside as he approached the shoe rental counter, taking a moment to note how few other people were around. As he stepped to the counter, Hal Marshal, one of the three brothers who owned the alley, turned from the shoe cubbies to look out toward the lanes.
“Oh, hey there, Roy,” Hal said amiably, smiling. “God, I didn’t even notice you come in! How are you, man?”
“I’m doing okay, Hal,” Roy said. “Steve or Clinton here today?”
“Nah, they left it to me today. My brothers can be pretty useless like that. You need a pair?”
“Yeah. Your bartender gonna card me?”
“No, she’s good,” Hal said. Roy headed over to the bar, where a twenty-something woman with shoulder-length brown hair and sleeve tattoos gave him the Bud Light he ordered without hesitation. When Roy came back, Hal had his shoes on the counter. “You turn twenty-one next month anyway, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Roy sat on a stool nearby to switch out his footwear. “Hey, you hear about that fire out at the Harkins’ place,” he asked curiously, trying to affect the small town gossip tone used by most folks in Candleton whenever something like the fire happened. Hal sighed, nodded.
“Yeah, man. They’ve managed to recover the remains of ten people so far, identified three of them. There’s Tommy Harkin, Becky Kilburn and Keith McCail. Sid Watts was in here about twenty minutes ago, gave me a quick run-down.”
“Oh?” Tightening the laces, Roy felt his arms tingling, growing slightly warm. “How does Sid know this stuff?”
“He’s a firefighter. Turns out that’s what he did after graduation, went and started doing training so he could become a volunteer. He wants to become a professional, move out to the west coast and join San Diego’s pros.” Roy grabbed his beer and stood up.
“Why San Diego?”
“That’s where his brother lives.” Roy nodded, thanked Hal for the shoes, and took up a lane. Unlike most habitual recreational bowlers, he didn’t own his own ball. There hardly seemed a point when the alley had its own supply on offer. He set his beer down, snagged a likely ten-pounder, and made his first roll. It left the dreaded 7-10 split.
“Yeah, that seems about right,” he muttered darkly.
It turned out to be one of the worst sets he had rolled in a long time, finishing out at 117. Roy grabbed one more beer, sitting at the bar with his own shoes on his feet, sipping slowly. The pain crept up on him, the kind of stalking menace that wants its intended victim to hear its heavy footfalls, relishing their panic, soaking in their dread. By the time he had half of his second beer drank, it hadn’t dulled any as he’d hoped it would.
The whining in his ears was soon accompanied by a smell, one he found unsettlingly familiar- burning hair. Roy looked left, toward the door, and saw nothing out of sorts. A turn right almost birthed a scream, one he bit back with a Herculean effort. Standing five feet away was Kendra, her hair aflame, the left half of her face melted away, revealing bubbling, bloody muscle tissue. Her teeth were scorched black, tongue covered in boils as she opened her mouth and groaned, a single finger raised to point at him.
His arms and legs suddenly felt as if he stood in the center of the inferno raging around this apparition, wreathed in stampeding flames. Unsure what else to do, Roy chugged down the rest of his drink and clambered down off his stool, fleeing like a man eluding police.
The woman tending bar watched him leave in a tizzy, shrugging her shoulders. “What a weirdo,” she said, grabbing his bottle. As she swept his bills off the bar counter, she noticed wisps of smoke coming from where he’d been sitting. Leaning over, she looked at the wooden stool he’d been sitting on.
The top was singed and smouldering.
Roy got to his car and managed to drive normally until he got home, parking in the lot behind the diner, then heading up the narrow staircase that ran along the building’s west side. Once he was in his apartment, he threw the deadbolt and slid the chain in place, sagging forward, the crown of his head pressed against the door.
Behind him came the ‘whump’ and rush of igniting flames. Spinning about, Roy watched as thin streaks of fire raced along his walls, his floor, his ceiling, setting everything they touched alight. He squeezed his eyes shut and slumped down to the floor, back to the door. “This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening,” he rasped to himself.
He risked opening his eyes, and saw everything was as it should be, unblemished, unburned, if a tad unorganized. He shuddered and whipped his shoes off, making a bee line for his computer.
The first search he performed was for ‘guilt causes hallucinations’, and Google returned over a million results. He read through the first six or seven links, four of them to articles from respected psychiatrists, and confirmed one suspicion. These visions he was suffering more than likely stemmed from his feeling bad about what had happened to the folks at Tommy Harkin’s party. He felt responsible for the fire.
Secondly, he performed a search for ‘blackout arson’, which yielded far fewer results, but enough to convince him that he’d set the lethal blaze. Yet, something nagged at him still, something unexplained, forgotten.
“How did I set the fire? Why wasn’t I burned,” he asked himself aloud. Roy wet into his bedroom and hoisted from his hamper the clothes he’d worn to the party. They were filthy with ashes and grime, and stank of smoke, but there was no other sign to indicate he’d been in the blaze. He sniffed them deeply, trying to catch a whiff of accelerant, but there was nothing.
Regardless, he had to do something, tell someone what he’d done. Roy still didn’t remember how or why, but he knew in his heart that he’d started the fire that killed those people at the Harkin home. He took out his cell phone with sweaty hands, the device slipping out of his hand. As he knelt down to reach for it, he spotted feet a few yards away.
Not just one set, but several. Most were bare, though two sets were shoed, and all were burned to a charry gray, bone showing through. Roy stood up, facing seven of the husked out corpses, each one reduced to a horrible, crisped mockery of humanity on blistered legs, shreds of cloth melted to their skin. Their mouths gaped open, pointing fingers at him and twitching, until he screamed wildly and dashed past them, out of his apartment.
He was halfway across the lot when he realized he’d left his phone behind. Roy looked back over his shoulder, and saw Tommy Harkin, suddenly only burning from his head down to his chest, come streaking out toward him, arms outstretched, groping blindly as he wailed in agony.
“Oh, fuck this,” Roy choked, getting into his car and peeling away from the diner. Into the evening he drove, the gloom gathering like a murder of crows, watching his every move.
Instinct, he thought. That’s what brought me here. This is how most serial killers get caught, this stupid instinct that brings them back to their killing grounds. He sat in his Tempo with the engine and lights off, staring at the cordoned off wreckage of the Harkin house. Candleton was a small town, and there weren’t enough peace officers on duty at any one time to keep a watch at what most were now calling ‘a tragic accident’.
On the radio, while driving seemingly aimlessly, Roy heard a local news report that said authorities were blaming the fire on an electrical malfunction. Being an older house, it seemed the original builders had used aluminum for the wiring instead of copper, turning the entire home into a fire hazard.
In short, Roy was free.
Shortly after turning off his radio in the middle of news updates on civil war in some distant country, he found himself turning off onto the Harkins’ dirt driveway, pulling off to the side and shutting down the car and lights. Ten minutes later, he still stared at it.
Roy stepped up out of his car, looking around the property. He was, as usual throughout his life, alone. He should have felt glad for this, but instead wanted to cry out for someone to come hold his hand, to tell him it would be all right. But such foolishness walked only in fitful hopes and dreams; he had nobody.
As Roy walked, hands in his pockets, toward the wreckage, he thought about that aspect of his being. He’d been an only child. His father had left when he was only three or four, leaving his mother to try raising him herself. She’d done well enough, considering the hardship. She didn’t scream or rage at him, didn’t rant or rave about his father for leaving. His mother didn’t turn to drink or drugs, or any of the habits that could make life even worse for the offspring of a single parent. She never raised a hand to him, and rarely even raised her voice.
He stopped just beyond the crime scene tape. “She barely said anything,” he mused aloud. In the fourteen years she raised him on her own, Roy now realized, she had never spent more than five or six minutes at one time talking to him. She got him presents for his birthdays and Christmas, took him trick or treating on Halloween, but she always shut down after the initial enthusiastic burst.
His mother had been completely detached, cold. Had it been because his father left? He didn’t know. She had been loving, once, he could remember that vaguely. And his father had been strong and fun and-
And completely terrified of Roy after the fire.
Roy clutched his head as the whining burst free in his head, and dropped down, down, down, into the Land of Ago.
It was his fourth birthday, and Roy goggled as his mother used a wand lighter to set the candles on his cake burning. They were in the kitchen, all of his friends from kindergarten playing and laughing in the living room, but they may as well have been in another world. All he cared about in that moment was his mom, his dad, and the beautiful, delightful glow of the tiny flames. Their curves resembled his mother’s hips and chest, which gave him a great deal of comfort and satisfaction. But these were playful, wisping hither and thither as the nearby air flowed. Oh, yes, there was great joy in the flames!
The candles lit, his father boosted him down off of his lap with a grunt and a smile, then took up the frosted block of baked goodness. Towering over little Roy, he grinned down and said, “Head on out there, champ. Tell them all to get ready for the cake.”
Roy obeyed at once. Dad was smart, and strong, and playful. He played chase and tag and catch, and even Nintendo (though he wasn’t much good at that, truth be told). Yes, he was great fun, just as Roy the flames must be.
So all of his friends and some of their parents gathered around the coffee table in the living room, while Roy knelt down in front of it. Mom must have hit the dimmer switch, because the room became cloaked in near-darkness, into which came the cake. As his father reverently carried the cake toward him, serving as the cue for everyone to start singing ‘Happy Birthday’, Roy sat in rapturous wonderment at the glow of the candles.
Roy never learned if it had been a misstep, a snag in the carpet, or an outstretched foot from one of his friends, but his father had tripped, and the cake had flown right at Roy, splatting into his face before crumbling to the coffee table and floor.
Several seconds of stunned silence stretched out, curtailed shortly thereafter by laughter. It began as one or two kids, but soon everyone was joining in, pointing and laughing while his mother and father fussed over him, trying to clean him off and console him.
“SHUT UP,” he howled at them all, the candles, now sitting caked in frosting on the coffee table flaring back to life. “You’re not my friends! Friends wouldn’t laugh at me!” But like all children, the kids ignored his bluster.
Until one of the candle flames swelled, floated into his hand, and he hurled it between his parents into the face of another little boy. His head blew open in a shower of gore and fire, which raged over his collapsing body, engulfing everyone nearby. Screams, smoke, and more curvy, heated friends floated into his hands, and Roy giggled as he made them all sorry for laughing at him.
And after that, darkness.
Roy heard sobbing, quiet, soft, insistent, and it took him a minute to realize his ears only carried the sounds from his own throat and mouth. He sat up on his knees, looking at the burned apparitions pointing at him from atop the ruins of the Harkin house. They weren’t accusing him- they were laughing at him.
“They’ve always been laughing at me,” he muttered, regaining control over his fitful crying. “They all thought it was so funny. The weird kid they went to school with, no friends, no extracurriculars, telling one of the prettiest girls in their class he likes her.” Now the flame-damaged specters could be heard laughing, chuckling darkly at him in their ruined forms. “Huh. Everybody else remembered. All those stories growing up, how I burned my parents’ house down. It was called an ‘accident’, but my parents knew. And other folks? They suspected.”
Tommy Harkin, his hair a tangled crisp atop his blackened skull, one eye burst and oozing down ashen bone, shambled forward from the wreckage. “We all knew you were a freak, Roy,” he snarled, voice dried out, wraith-like. “Why the hell do you think I invited you to my house? I only kept you around in high school to have something to laugh about with my real friends!”
Roy’s head dipped down, but he felt a wolf’s leer slide over his lips, stretching his mouth. Flames licked out around his hands, the heat tossing his hair about as he held them, palms facing him, inches from his eyes. “Oh, yes, Tommy,” he rasped. He cocked his head up, looking at the apparition with one eye, partially concealed by his greasy hair. “Yes, you all had one hell of a laugh, didn’t you? Well,” he said, now standing upright, planting his feet wide, arms thrown to his sides as more fire burst out from a ring around his neck. The flames touched him not, but could have reduced anything they touched to ashes. “Who’s laughing now?”
The partially immolated young man stood with his head thrown back, cackling like a lunatic as the moon shone down upon his triumph. Animals in the nearby woods fled in terror, some falling dead of fright. When his peals of laughter faded, only his hands now wrapped in heat, Roy stalked to the edge of the ashen waste. He hocked a wad of phlegm on the works.
“Thank you, Tommy. Thank you for reminding me of what I am; a freak. I hope you went from my flames into eternal ones.” The apparitions gone, his guilt banished, Roy headed back to his car to head home. He had always been alone, but for the beauty of the flames.
Some folks are said to burn everything they touch. He was looking forward to doing so literally.