"Clay’s Fire" by Kat Heckenbach
(originally published in The Four Horsemen anthology, Pill Hill Press)
Clay appeared in the bedroom doorway clutching a stack of papers, a wide grin set across his face.
“Turn off the TV, Katie. I just finished my latest story. I want to read it to you.”
I reached over the pillow and grabbed the remote from the nightstand. The flickering glow from the television snapped off, leaving the room in almost complete darkness. Clay walked over and turned on the small lamp clipped to the edge of the desk against the far wall.
“Is this the one you were working on the other day? When you wouldn’t let me in the study?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Now settle in. Close your eyes.” The chair creaked with the all-too familiar sound of him leaning back.
“Just this once can’t you sit by me?”
“Katie, come on. I can’t read with you watching me.”
“I’ll keep my eyes closed, I promise.”
Clay laughed. “You’ll keep them closed anyway.” The chair creaked again. “Now be quiet.”
I pulled the sheets up to my shoulders and rested my head against the pillow. The last thing I saw before closing my eyes was the silhouette of the footboard that served as a wall between us.
“Ready?” Clay said, his voice already deepening into the storyteller mode I fell in love with.
Clay’s voice drifted through the room, deep and resonating. Smooth. His words caressed me, soothing me, even when he read something terrifying. I never felt safer than when he spoke in that mystical, storyteller voice…
Charles entered the convenience store at exactly seven-thirty. The clang of the bell ended abruptly when the door slammed shut behind him. The store was crowded, and Charles felt heat climb up his neck.
Too many people in this small space, with its narrow aisles stuffed full of junk. Bags and boxes of chemical-laden snacks in their neat little rows along the shelves.
I knew that part of the story came from Clay’s own fear of small spaces. Claustrophobia to the nth degree in his case. Our house had gobs of windows and soaring high ceilings. I felt a pang of discomfort, knowing Clay had mentally put himself in Charles’ shoes and experienced the heat and fear of the crowded and confined store, the kind of place he’d never willingly enter in real life.
People milled around, avoiding each other’s eyes, as if stopping in to buy a six-pack and a bag of Fritos were some sort of conspiratorial act. Charles lowered his eyes as well, tugging at the collar of his shirt.
I pulled at the sheets. Hadn’t they only been up to my shoulders? Why were they pushing against my chin?
His neck was slick with perspiration, and as he stood in front of the newspaper rack, beads of sweat popped up on his forehead. He swiped his hands through his bangs, the heat from his forehead surging into his palms.
“I must have a fever,” he whispered to himself.
The sheets suddenly smothered me, sticking to my legs. I folded the edge over and kicked myself free, trying to stay tuned in to Clay’s voice. Air, not quite cool enough, hit my skin and I settled back into my pillow.
Charles began searching for the shelf that held aspirin, sweat pouring into his eyes. He glanced sideways. No one seemed to notice him. Heat flooded him, and he swallowed. His tongue felt as if it would crack from the effort.
Maybe the aspirin would have to come later. Right now, a drink. He took a swaying step toward the soda fountain. His hand groped the collar of his shirt again. It was soaked, but grated his skin like sandpaper. He peeled off his jacket and dropped it on the floor. Two more stumbling steps and he stood in front of the soda fountain. He dared a look around. A few people threw him tentative glances, but their eyes immediately diverted.
I licked my lips and slid up against my pillow so I could reach for the glass of water on the nightstand. My arm slid across the pillowcase, now slimy from the sweat that had soaked through my hair. Had Clay turned the heater on just to make his story feel more real? I listened hard as I swallowed the last gulps of water in the glass. His voice seemed deeper than usual, even more melodic, like the bass guitar in a haunting ballad.
The paper cup trembled in Charles’s hand. Ice tumbled out as he pressed the cup against the lever. Each cube that touched his hand burned in opposition to his hot skin and melted almost immediately.
“This isn’t right,” he said out loud, not caring now who looked at him.
He slammed the cup into the next lever and soda poured out, sloshing over the sides and sizzling as it hit his skin. He drew the cup to his mouth with both shaking hands, spilling the sticky liquid down his sweat-encrusted shirt.
He gulped, and the drink only turned to steam in his mouth, scalding his lips and the insides of his nostrils as he inhaled. He dumped the remains over his head, listening to the sputter of liquid popping into gas around his head.
The glassed slipped out of my hand and hit the floor with a clang, but Clay continued to read. His voice wrapped around me and the intensity of it prickled my skin from head to toe. I reached into my tingling hair and felt that the sweat had dried completely…
Bodies shifted around Charles, and his breath caught in his throat as he gazed around at their staring faces. His neck muscles squeezed and released, allowing the scalding air to finally escape his lungs. A woman backed away, a look of horror contorting her face. Her scream threatened to shatter his bones, which pulsed heat along with his heartbeat.
y pulse thrummed in my ear, nearly drowning out Clay’s voice. I scrambled to find his words again, even while my mind screamed for me to turn away from him. I needed him to soothe me through the story. But the harder I focused on his voice, the more the heat flamed.
Charles heaved in breath after breath, as flames licked the inside of his body, searing tissue and bone.
“Help me!” he cried to the crowd as they finally began to back away. The terror in the eyes of some scared him less than the look of morbid curiosity in others.
Questions swirled around his mind—What’s happening? Why aren’t they doing something? Am I dying?
The expressions on their faces as they clawed past each other said, “Yes, yes you are….”
(Clay, am I dying…?)
Charles tore at his clothing, and it crumbled in his hand. Blackened with ash from the flames that had finally pushed through to the surface of his skin.
Flames…fire…coming from inside him…
The heat reached beyond anything Charles had imagined.
(I see the flames, Clay! Please stop! I see them…)
And just as the phrase entered his mind…“spontaneous combustion”…the heat seared even higher and with a burst—
Air poured into my lungs as I gasped. The sudden absence of Clay’s voice resonated in my ears…silence smothering me as I sprang from the bed. I’d felt the heat so intensely I’d imagined seeing flames—a sudden burst of light just as Clay stopped reading.
The dim light from the desk lamp glowed around the edge of the footboard, but the rest of the room lay heavy with darkness.
“Clay, what happened?”
My hands began to tremble, and I threw my legs over the side of the bed. My nightgown clung to me, and as I ran my fingers through my bangs I found my hair sticky with sweat as well.
I forced myself to stand, and stepped around the corner of the bed. The desk lamp cast its dim light on the pile of ashes in the flame-scorched desk chair that still leaned back.