BURNING, BURNING, EVERYTHING BURNS. The air whips across my body, flays my skin and I think it’s tearing me apart, oh God, is it tearing me apart? I feel a crack in my wrist, it bursts into flames—suddenly a solid obsidian surface is inches from my nose and I squeeze my eyes shut—
Pain everywhere, unimaginable pain. Every bone in my body breaks at the same time. The darkness swallows me and almost instantly the pain brings me back, gasping, turning in the water—water—water—
Water invades my nose, my mouth my throat my lungs until it burns burns burns. I can’t get gasp. I can’t get air. My mouth is open and I think I’m throwing up on water and swallowing it at the same time. Air, air, breathe, need to breathe—all the blood is flowing to my head or maybe I’m not upside down or maybe I am my arms aren’t working my legs won’t listen to me the water won’t help—
A thousand shards of icy coldness stab at my body and I gasp—air air air, beautiful air, beautiful beautiful marvellous air and tiny droplets of water so tiny they’re inconsequential—I gulp and gasp at it until I think I might choke on the inconsequential droplets but that’s perfectly okay because air air air but it all tastes weird, why?
I fall back into the sea, pulled under by another enormous indigo swell. The water pulls and tosses me back and forth and everywhere until I think I might die, or maybe I’m already dead. My lungs are full of water but the water pulls my body away from me and my eyes sting with salt and the sea is trying to kill me.
I’m slammed into something sharp and hard—a thousand sharp and hard somethings, and this time the darkness swallows me for good.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I wake up and sit up and throw up, only there’s nothing to throw up but I can still feel the seawater in my lungs, in my mouth my nose my eyes my face, everywhere—I’m coughing, retching, trying to expel something from my lungs that just isn’t there.
It hurts. I pant for breath. The cold mocks me, tries to smother me. I shiver and tremble so violently that the sharp shells beneath my cheek cuts into my skin. I wonder if it’s blood or water that I’m covered in. I can’t move, I’m utterly limp. I feel broken. Am broken. Broken. Can’t move.
Something wet caresses my skin. Blood? Tears?
A strong wave at my back. I physically flinch—crawl away, needed to move—knees collapse. It’s back again. Water pulls me back—but soothing now, gentle, touching my back, gentle, soft, warm…
Darkness. Yes. Black nothing.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The next time I wake, there’s sunshine on my face.
I open my eyes slowly.
I’m lying on my side. The ocean scant inches away. I stare at the white foam, rushing in towards me, then back out again, almost saying hello.
I wonder if I can move. I try to lift a finger. It seems easy enough. I try an arm—okay. I try to sit up.
It takes five minutes and by the end I’m so tired I’m completely bent over myself, over legs that I can’t feel, gasping for breath, eyes screwed shut against the pain.
The water rushes up and surrounds me. I put a hand in it, marvelling at its softness. I close my eyes and breathe in the clear air, the clean morning, the crisp winter sun. I smell rain on the rocks, the trees. From last night? I open my eyes. The skies are white, but not rain-white—just white. Pure white. It rained last night, then.
I bring my legs up, slowly, one at a time, wincing with each move. The water lapping at my skin helps. I cross my legs and stop for a moment. Baby steps. I bend them and try to get up on my feet.
I’m unsteady. I wobble for a moment, half-squatting, fingers balancing precariously on rocks and shells and the water that continues to dance in swirls. I push myself up. I stand for a second, try to take a step and almost immediately trip on a loose clam. My fingers scrape against the water as I balance myself again. I stand up straight. Good. I can stand.
I look at the ocean. Silver and grey, reflecting the colourless sky above it. The woods are mostly silent today. The cliffs loom, large and imposing. I frown. There’s something I need to remember…
It all comes crashing back, then. Dennis. Dennis’s words. Dad’s words, his face. Jem’s face.
I fall on the rocks and choke on a sob, a whimper. The waves rumble as if to comfort me. I catch myself. No. Can’t grieve. Not now.
I need to find shelter. Warmth. Where?
Nowhere. I have no home. No friends. Maybe I could try—
No. There’s no one.
Where can I go?
I look at the sea, but it’s silent. The waves toss playfully under the morning light, as though last night didn’t happen, as though they hadn’t tried to kill me. They can’t help me now.
Then I remember. The house.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
It looks mostly the same. The one wall and half a room still standing, that is.
It would be obvious to anyone what had happened here. Even the last wall is still blackened from the fire. I step up to the front door—or, what’s left of it. Just a lonely piece of blue wood, mostly burnt. Beyond it, nearly everything is soot. Soot and ashes and black dust. I take a deep breath.
Fire, old memories, death.
I walk in. I look around. The roof is gone, most of the floor is gone. There’s a big gaping hole through which you can see the laundry room that we cleaned out afterwards. Only a small part of the kitchen survived. And some stairs, and a blackened, twisted banister.
I go back out; it hurts to be here. I sit on the ground in front of the house. It’s all grassy and green, despite the winter, despite that fire. It grew back so quickly.
I look down the hill. At the woods hugging one side of it, at the cliffs beyond them. And on the other side I see the town; the mayor’s building, Main Street, the school. It really is such a small town. I can see everything from here.
I sit there for hours. Or days, maybe. I don’t really know. Everything is silent, muted. I like the silence.
Vaguely a part of my mind screams at me, scolds me for shutting the world out. But I can’t quite remember what I’m shutting out. Something—there’s something. This feels familiar. It feels familiar. I don’t want to face that “something”. So I ignore my thoughts and shut it out. I like the silence.
I fall asleep and wake up without really noticing. Once or twice when I wake up a part of my brain registers that it’s gotten darker, and colder. It tells me to move. I don’t want to. I sleep. I wake up. It’s dark now, almost pitch black. My eyes close again. I dream. I wake up. There’s a soft, floating glow near the bottom of the hill. It moves steadily. I stare at it, almost mesmerized. It comes closer and closer to me. It comes close enough that I can see it’s not floating, but attached to someone’s hand—or no, it’s floating above the hand. It’s red and gold and yellow all at once. It’s soft. It’s warm.
He’s tall. He has long fingers. He comes to me and bends in front of me and looks at me. His fire is warm, his body is warm. His long fingers touch my face.
A sudden, inexplicable panic overtakes my body. I spring up and back, tripping over my feet, and scream or shout or gasp I need to get away something is dangerous no—no, it’s fine. No, it’s not. I look at the fire in his hands and I know. The silence is gone. There’s white noise and loud noise and all kinds of noise buzzing in my ears.
“Stop. It’s okay. It’s just me. It’s safe, it’s mine. Look at me. Watch—it’s safe, see?”
He raises his hand a little. I stay still, utterly still. The fire flickers, twists, expands a little, then twists into a spiral and compresses itself until it’s a tiny, tiny orb.
“See?” he says again. He’s not whispering, just speaking, but softly. “It listens to me. All I have to do is ask.”
It grows and spins and dances again, and it hypnotizes me. It’s beautiful. Everything seems blurry, blurred, except this. “I just ask and it listens to me. Do you understand?”
I look at him, his clear-as-water eyes. I nod. “I think so,” I try to say, but it comes out distorted.
He reaches his other hand into the fire and my eyes widen and I lunge at him, grabbing his wrist. But it’s too late, his hand is already wrapped in flames. He stills, waits for me. I stare. He doesn’t look pained and I don’t smell burning flesh. I let go of his wrist. He smiles at me, a tiny smile, his fingers doing something in the flames. Then he pulls out a bottle of water.
He hands it to me. I take it and uncap it cautiously and smell the contents. It feels normal. He says, “It’s just water. Have some.”
I drink and then I can’t stop; the water is warm, and slips down my throat then into my belly and warms me from inside out. He puts a hand on my shoulder then on my back, rubbing between my shoulder blades, telling me to slow down or I’ll hurt myself. I try to. I count to three between each gulp and he pushes the bottle down, tilting it so that water isn’t rushing into my mouth all at once.
When I’m done I put it down and look at it and hand it to him. He smiles at me again, I think—or maybe it’s just something with his eyes—and tosses the fire in his hand. It arches above our heads, a beautiful flash of gold, and crashes into some unseen barrier to hang eerily in the winter air.
“Watch this,” he says, still quietly. He glances at me to make sure I’m watching then throws the plastic bottle right into the fire. At the last second the flames seem to reach for it and they grasp it, pull it in, and swallow it.
He does something with his wrist and the whole fire disappears with a light pop. I look back at him. He’s got another one lit already, but it’s milder. It glows yellow, pulsing gently, illuminating his face and eyes—and I’m sure mine—in the dark night.
He says, “Are you ready to go?”
I nod—the honesty slips out before I can stop it. “Yes,” I hear myself saying.
He offers me a hand, the unlit one. I take it. My head is heavy. He pulls me to my feet and leads me down the hill. I follow. He leads me past the trees, away from the house, past where Jem used to park his truck. My head and my body both feel heavy. We’ve almost left the town completely behind when I realize we’ve almost left the town completely behind.
I stop. He stops and looks back at me. “Wait,” I say. “Where are we going again?”
There’s a sadness in his eyes. “Home,” he says.
I open my mouth to ask another question, but he’s let go of my hand. He extinguishes the light, and suddenly, it’s all dark. He reaches up and delicately places his fingers on either side of my head.
“Close your eyes,” he whispers, and shadows engulf me again.