Centipedes and Smoke

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There was a man on fire at the foot of her bed. 

With gaping black eye sockets and a mouth stretched wide in a soundless scream, he stood perfectly still, while the flames consumed him, turning him from a figure of flesh and blood to a crumbling pile of soft ashes, splintered bone, and slick melted fat. Hours after the flames died out, the fat would solidify. It would congeal like old grease on a baking sheet. Humans were only meat.

She was only meat.

Three flames flickered away from his skull, tendrils that warbled and waved.

Not a sound came from the man, but Rachel knew what he would say if he could speak.

He would tell her that she was next. He would remind her that she'd spontaneously combusted once before, seven years ago, when she was only three. He'd taunt her with this truth. That her body could spontaneously combust, and not only that it could, that it would. She'd join him soon, and then she would have to burn every night at the foot of another person's bed.

Rachel stared into the eyes of the burning, silent figure, his flame-engulfed form dominating the small space of her bedroom. In the dark of night, Rachel's friendly pink and white bedroom became a nightmare world, and she woke in a paralyzed state, staring up at the creature she couldn't bring herself to talk to Nan about.

With every ounce of strength she had, Rachel willed her body to move. Her heart rushed. Her head zipped. Her body remained stiff and uncooperative. Something invisible, but heavy, oh so heavy, pressed down into her chest, crushing her ribs. Sharp pain prickled in her bones.

If she didn't move soon, if she didn't reach the buckets of water she'd hidden beneath the bed, the man on fire would reach for her. If he touched her, she'd burn too.

She fought within the immovable prison her body had become. She struggled to force a scream from between her opened lips, but it was no use.

Her skin fizzled with the flames igniting in her veins. She felt them flickering to life and the terror would have caused her to cry out if only her body wasn't dead as a corpse, a lump of skin and organs that held her captive.

The man on fire tilted his head. He lifted a hand and with sickly dread, Rachel saw that his fingers all elongated into flames, giving his fingers the appearance of being unnaturally long, slender and tapered in a way that no human digits should ever be.

His arm extended. The flames came closer.

Her heart sent blood rushing through her ears. Her pulse pounded in her skull.

Those flames would burn across her face and peel away her skin. Her flesh would be peeled away, layer by layer, like the papery red of an apple, leaving the mealy core exposed, bruising, rotting.

She didn't want to burn. She didn't want to rot.

Panic seared her insides.

She felt a flicker, a harried little whisper in the darkness. She sensed millions of legs moving in unison, attached to the line at the center that was a body.

When Rachel slept she had spectacular nightmares filled with centipedes and smoke.

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