"Fire Wall" by Kat Heckenbach
(originally published in The Absent Willow Review)
I clawed past the crowd. Day after day they gathered, clustering to watch the fire as it encroached. It moved impossibly slow, like a wall of advancing soldiers surrounding the city. Heat singed the air, and the acrid smell of burning grass filled my nostrils. Smoke lifted above the fire and dispersed, but somehow never entered the interior of the circle.
As I cleared the crowed, I turned and looked above the milling bodies. Flames licked the sky in an uneven march. Step by step, millimeter by millimeter, closing in on its final meal.
How could everyone just stand there, staring? Didn’t they understand it was coming to consume us as it had every other city?
“Joshua, where are you going?” Ryan stood at the edge of the crowd, gazing at the tower of flames. Orange tendrils reflected in his vacant eyes. “You can at least watch. It can’t hurt you from here!”
I shook my head and started running.
No heat or odor reached past the crowd. The air felt warm and comforting. I held my gaze low and kept running, determined to get home. The brick walls of my house would be no protection once the fire reached them, but maybe someone would figure out how to stop it before then. Before more people ended up on the other side of the flames.
The next morning I could see the fire clearly from my bedroom window. It pulsed as if alive, devouring its prey as it passed. Why did they not move out of the way?
One woman reached out and touched the fire, and immediately withdrew her hand. Her scream pierced through the dawn as she dropped to her knees. I mimicked her movement and gripped the edge of my bedroom window, unable to draw my eyes away from her.
The woman’s hand shone in the early sunlight, glinting like….yes, like gold.
It couldn’t be.
She gazed at her hand, turning it, examining it from every angle. Then she reached out again, touched the fire, and stepped through.
My head dropped forward into my hands. Why would she do that? And what had happened to her hand? Did the same thing happen to rest of her?
Curiosity gripped tighter. I stood and raced down the stairs and out the front door. I had to see for myself.
I rounded the corner of a building, only yards from the fire. Ryan was there, staring into the flames. I grabbed his shoulder. He didn’t look at me.
“I’m going in,” he said. “I want what they have.”
“They? Who?” I shook his shoulder, trying to force his face toward me. “Those people are dead! They’ve been burned! Is that how you want to die?”
Ryan finally turned and looked me in the eye. The emptiness I’d seen in his eyes the day before had been replaced by hunger. “Better now, this way, than later.”
“What are you talking about? Of course you’ll die later, Ryan. We all will. But you don’t have to volunteer! Someone could find a way to stop this and we won’t have to die for years and years.”
He shook his head, and his eyes held something strange. Pity? I couldn’t tell.
“Nothing can stop it, Joshua. The only way is through the flames.”
“But they’ll kill you, Ryan.”
“Yes, but only once. And then I can never die again.”
He grabbed me in a bear hug that nearly knocked the breath out of me, and then released me and dived through the fire.