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Fire on the Lake

by Anna Wang

I was told I possess a vivid imagination, that I am a pathological liar, a regular maniac--but they did not know me as you did. I was quite the dreamer, yes, but not delirious. “Screws loose,” they said. If anything, they were the ones plagued by phantoms. And I was so confused, so dizzy that night, but you would do well to listen. My eyes did not betray me, and I could not lead you astray.

The estate was built of weeping wood. During fall, wind would weasel through the cracks that even ants ignored, letting frost settle into my mahogany floor and ruin my olive desks. Stiff curtains protected me from the ugly forest surrounding the estate. Those woods were old and wrinkled, with roots like crooked teeth and a witch’s wart on every tree. All around, it was dead tinder, dry as dust. My only relief in all the monotony was the nearby lake. In spring it was blue like the sky, though now it reflected only the gray fog.

On one of these mundane, stale evenings, I awoke to the smell of smoke.

Under a candle’s light and the night’s lullaby, I felt her footsteps in the halls. Now is when I question my memory; but, you must understand, she was there--I think, or at least, she had to have been. Who else could be the culprit? A shadow fell by the windows, and, inching closer, a moth to the flame, I saw her alabaster fingers, the color of fresh snow, soft and radiant, so bright it was almost translucent. Flickering, glowing gold like an eclipse, beautiful - and I saw one hand was made of fire. The other held a burning match.

I was out of the house before it could touch the floor.

Lucky bastard, that’s what I was. I reached the lake before the flames could run.

Outside, the night was still dark as death. Kicking my feet in front of me, one at a time, one at a time, because time was flying away and each breath was inundated with desert sand; it was a miracle I could even breathe at all. My heart was running races against itself and tripping at a thousand miles per hour. I dragged my feet to the edge of the forest and hoisted my deadweight-self onto the lifeboat near the lake. Rowing it towards the center of the water, I watched the flames from a distance.

The fire framed the house with orange edges, casting long figures along the lake. Each flame was like the tongue of a carnivorous beast. I shivered. How many seconds would it take to consume the whole world? The skeleton branches of the forest could not defend for long.

As I searched for the end of the forest which was never revealed, the boat stopped.

An ugly, ugly witch faced me. She had pale and sickly paper where her skin should have been. Half of her was fleshy charcoal, a quarter was so seared the meat below began to green. It was a hollow shell of what used to be, and one cannot face the dead without dying a little inside. It was a disgusting feat of nature, that rotten, burnt corpse. Flies all over, so much buzzing, so many flies feasting on the decay. Ajar mouth with molding teeth, and two, five, six, twelve flies darting in and out, in and out, loitering on the tongue, walking across the inner cheeks.

My fingers itched to break its neck. To crush its limbs and claw its eyes out and toss it all into the fire, watch it burn, watch it scar and crumble into itself, and wait until it and all the flies were no more than dust.

Trembling, I looked away.

Was it still watching? I could hear them, those flies taunting me. I saw its mouth curving into a smile, and impatience - oh, why strike now, why, in my moments of telling, must such sin come in to take me? I couldn’t look, I couldn’t. Yet impatience - it was my hand that shook the devil’s, it whispered to take the reins - wished for my downfall. And greed, oh, the arrogant, sour fool. I could hear it now. It was drumming in my ears, furious heartbeats, and I folded. Impatience, which had never waited and did not intend to do so now, and greed, which drools for desire and won’t satisfy, forever ravenous, took my head and made it snap, made my body twist violently. I convulsed so quickly that the boat rammed into the corpse, and the jerk of the body revealed a most unholy stench, a concentrated sewage filth that punched square in the guts. My eyes, they found the corpse’s, and now, I laid there, staring back at twin vulture eyes, one watching the fire, the second inspecting me. Glossy little pupils with a layer of ash overtop, empty like a cursed doll, eyes of a broken, twisted demon.

Ugly, ugly, ugly corpse.

Nausea shook all over. Starting from my heart, the shivers zapped down my spine, and it surged up. I surrendered everything. Had I fallen overboard? My face was dripping, twitching. Hair was heavy, chest, hollow, and my knees could not support the air. Clammy palms ripped at the fire ants in my lungs, trying to scratch them out, only irritating them. Smoke pillaged my eyes and my ears fell off my skull. The whole sky was shaking, ringing, cutting my throat into thousands of bleeding scratches. Bullets in my blood were zipping and stabbing and screaming and loud, so loud, and the deepest corners of my brain were throbbing, violently shaking. Another wave of my stomach, wrong-side-up, tumbled out in gags. I vomited my brains out, and the bile spattered loudly when it broke the surface.

From the fire I could trace the contents of myself, guts and rib cage lying side by side.

I started coughing when there was nothing left to give. Eternities later, when I remembered how to breathe, shaking stutters in and out, like blowing out a candle with short, desperate snatches, snow began to fall. Little specks of black parading down from the sky. It stung when they landed, searing new freckles into my arms. Funny snow. All around, falling ash, and my taste was coming back, and - and I’m going insane, I thought, because by now the entire world was blazing orange, and the fire, it was beautiful.

I could not help but watch. The light was sugar for the eyes. It was magic. Auburn melted the ivory branches into gasoline, into thousands of flaming fingers trickling into the sky. It was beautiful, like Persephone in the fields, like Apollo in his chariot. It lit up the sky as a different kind of sun.

I watched until the world turned dark, until heavy eyelids declared that I was ready to rest. My body, having given up a long, long time ago, felt freed. It was a slow descent into darkness. In my final breaths, the visitor came back. Blink and you would miss it. In a split second, I saw an ethereal, sun-white aura and flies marching over burnt skin.

The papers called it a wildfire. They said dry, autumn wind sparked flames in a forest dead from drought. Nothing survived the flames, not even the lone house creeped up at the edge of the woods. Hidden by the smoke was another curiosity: floating on the lake’s surface was a small boat and its passenger, a corpse whose lungs were caked in cinders, all the life smoldered out of them. Burnt fingers, vulture eyes - the victim, a frequent hallucinator, was dead from carbon monoxide.


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