A Kindling in Her Guts

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 Rachel's nerves shivered. Her energy levels were elevated and strange.

She filled her last bucket at the tub, keeping the water on low so that Nan wouldn't hear it from the living room. When the bucket was full, she eased the water off and staggering under the weight of it, crept down the hall, moving quickly whenever Nan made a noise, one of her frequent throat clearings or mutterings about the talk show she watched. She moved slowly the rest of the time, trying not to spill any water over the lip of the plastic.

She kicked her door shut the moment she'd entered the room and hurried to put the bucket in her closet before Nan caught her. Nan had caught her hiding buckets of water in the past, and she hadn't been pleased. She'd forced Rachel to dump the buckets out and Rachel had gotten no sleep those nights. Not even the interrupted sleep that left her bleary-eyed and headachey, the kind she got whenever the man on fire paralyzed her and tormented her in the hours just before sunrise.

Rachel shut the closet door, feeling a tightness inside of her. Her thoughts twisted and spun at a maddening speed. Ideas zipped through her brain so quickly that she hardly felt like she could catch them. They tore through the forefront of her mind and she had only an instant to view them, like images seen through the dashboard of a speeding car. There and gone before she really knew what she was looking at. Then, a new idea was there, lighting up the inside of her head, speeding and exploding thoughts that made her grin, and then wince, and then twist up her arms until a sharp and nagging pain announced itself in the tendons of her wrists.

Her heart hammered. Her blood cooled. She hugged herself tightly and sat poised on the edge of her bed. She breathed in and out, in and out, each breath a struggle and a joy. And then, when her mind felt somewhat tamer, her thoughts slow enough to see, she thought of the pasta she'd eaten for dinner. It had been so hot. She'd felt the heat in her gut.

If her digestive juices ignited, the flames would travel up her spine. Her spine would be the wick. Her organs and meat would be the wax...

And then she was thinking of Helene. Nan and Papa didn't believe Rachel had spontaneously combusted, but Helene must know. Helene must have been so scared when Rachel's toddler body had sprouted flames, her flesh consuming itself. No wonder Helene had spent so much time away from her. She was back now though. Rachel had to do whatever she could not to combust again. Maybe Helene could tell her about the day she'd been burned, what had happened beforehand, what it had looked like, maybe give her some clue as to how it could be avoided.

From the edge of her vision, something smoky wafted up from the floor by her foot. She gasped and ripped her foot from the ground. Gray tendrils bled from her feet. She opened her mouth to scream, but her throat birthed only silence.

And when she blinked her eye, the smoke vanished, blotted out by Rachel's eyelid.

Breathing heavily, shakily, morbidly, she turned her foot, looking at the bottom of her sock. Nothing. There was no trace of smoke. No trace of fire. She peeled away her pink sock and flexed her foot. No charred skin. No redness.

The demon of Spontaneous Human Combustion was tricking her. Toying with her before he held her down in the darkness and burned her once and for all. Turning her body to soot. Black and grainy. Like the grit on a barbecue. Like the crumbles at the bottom of the stove. Gritty, grainy, charred ash. Soot of human parts. That's what she'd become. That's all she'd be at the end of it all.

"Rachel," Nan called. "I see your light on. I told you to get in bed ten minutes ago."

Still trembling with taut nerves and runaway fear, Rachel crept to the door and opened it a crack. She could never sleep with the door completely closed. It felt too final, like the lid on a casket. Too encased and separate, like she'd been sealed off for death.

Her hand trembled over the light-switch. If only she still had a nightlight. But Nan said it would help her to get rid of the nightlight. "I've coddled you too long," Nan had sighed, as she removed the nightlight from the table beside Rachel's bed. "I thought I was helping, but I made you worse. Time to stop babying you. Face your fears and you'll get over them."

But that had been months ago, back in the summer, and Rachel still dreaded the nightly sprint from the light-switch to the bed. The bed was so far away. Several panicked footfalls through the grasping, murderous night.

She hovered next to the door for a drawn-out, heart-pounding moment. This was a nightly ritual. She had to work up the courage to plunge the room into smooth blackness. She had to brace herself for the moment that extended the nightly invitation to her burning visitor. She told herself it would only be a moment of running, a moment of insistent energy coursing through her, a moment of run-run, before you die, before the dark grows fingers to take you. A moment of pure fear. Turn off the light; rush to the bed. Turn off the light; rush to the bed. There would be a degree of safety under the covers. Under the blankets, she'd be okay. The man on fire might stay away tonight. He might have other children to torment. All she had to do was flick that switch and sprint. She'd be safe under the covers in no time.

She poised her hand over the switch, willing herself to take the next step. She was making good progress. She rested her fingertips on the switch, the smooth plastic electrified her skin. This plastic, with one movement, would turn the room from a perfectly safe bedroom to a coffin creeping and crawling with everything her fear nurtured, everything she'd told the darkness she couldn't handle. With one movement, the room would feel different. Threatening, angry, hateful. The shadows growing in the corners of her vision promised her this atmosphere. The shadows fulfilled that promise every night.

"Rachel!" Nan shouted again. "I see that light. Get your butt in bed."

"Okay, Nan," she called. "I'm going."

She had to move now, or Nan would soon be on her way down the hall. She took a deep breath. She pulled all of her focus, tugging it to the center of her brain, imagining a pinpoint that it could all rest upon. Finally, she pulled herself to the point where she could act. She never understood how she got there. It was something intangible that happened inside of her. It could only be controlled with feeling, gut reaction, instinct.

She darted her hand out and hit the switch, and then she flung herself through the darkness. She stumbled and staggered. The pitch black reached out to crush down on her, to seize her, blanketing her with mysterious secretes. She tore through the dark, reaching out for the bed, before the demons in the night could reach down her throat and ignite her, start a kindling in her guts...

Her knees hit the mattress. She threw her body, landing on top of the covers. She twisted, the night still pressing in on her from all sides. She grabbed the corner of the comforter with one hand. She kept her eye shut. She kept it shut tight to keep out all of her terrors. She crushed her body into the bed and pulled the blanket across her face.

Fervently, fastidiously, frenetically, she tucked the corners of the blanket around her body. She tucked it under her side. She used her toes to tuck the blanket under her feet. She kept tucking until the comforter surrounded her, leaving no way for smoky tendrils to creep in.

Now she couldn't see into the darkness. Now the darkness couldn't see into her.

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