by Dylan Taylor
The fire came from the inside. Small flames licked my abdomen, but more blackened coal-stoked char than open flame. Sure it was painful, but it wasn’t the pain I remember, it was the shock. An aroma like soap being made at a pioneer village followed my constrained combustion, then a pelleting of holes in my T-shirt. Man did I jump! As I ripped off the shirt, an ember scalded my hand and left a scar intersecting the lines of my palm, a new road engraved for soothsayers and mystics.
That isn’t really for me to say though is it? I mean I like the way it sounds with the gypsy palm being changed thus altering the course of my entire future but spontaneous fires repurposing my body’s flesh could have been the plan all along.
My torso got 86 percent more interesting.
Charred remnants of skin, a papier-mâché of seared flesh, mountains and valleys scabbing and crackling. My body, the bottom of the altar, where prayer candles spillover inside the Catholic Church. I even smoke and smudge like morning mass.
I was getting concerned. I was already concerned from the first fire; I was beginning to get terrified. Petrified that the burn zone would grow, would melt deep enough inside to reach essential organs, would turn me from a quaint medical curiosity, to front-page Enquirer headline.
Naturally I Googled my symptoms.
Nothing. Nothing except death and conspiracy. Then I found the Craigslist ad.
Do you feel changed at an elemental level? Are these changes too odd to ignore? Too small to define? You are not alone; email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It seemed a long shot. How could these symptoms be widespread and secret? This ad couldn’t be about personal, non-lethal flameouts. Still my fingers were in the middle of writing an email.
Dear Curious Craigslister,
My body catches on fire for no particular reason. This is a recent development. I am not a member of the Fantastic 4, nor do I suffer from the delusion that I might be. I wish this were a delusion. The scars are real. The fires continue to stay relatively small. I have not seen a doctor out of fear and cost. The pain that was once agonizing now is familiar, an old road I drive without really seeing it. I guess what I want to know is what the fuck is going on with my body? Do you have answers? Is my condition what your ad was searching for?
P.S. No rush though. Like I said, no one’s dying here.
Two months pass. I have invested in fire retardant shirts and bulk aloe. The other day I noticed a throbbing ache in one of my back molars. Took needle-nose pliers and tore out the abscess by its roots. All my pain receptors have been severed. My body no longer freaks out and tells me “No!” Who can afford a dentist anyway?
When the email comes I am contemplating multiple piercings and a sideshow feature.
Dinner, 8:37 PM at Ciro’s. Come alone. Leave enough of your chest exposed so I can verify the scaring. I will be wearing an orange sash.
The time was so specific that I burned a few minutes pacing the alley behind Ciro’s debating on the number of buttons to leave undone. Two, three? I hadn’t met anyone in a very long time. Two buttons, you don’t want to look too Don Johnsonesque. Question after question surged through my thoughts. What could I expect from this Von Fries? Would she shine any light on my combustion problem? Why was her email so unlike her name?
Artlessly, we arrived at the same moment.
“Show me… I told you to have a portion of the scars visible.”
Damn, three buttons I knew it! I exposed more flesh to Von Fries.
“Wonderful” she whispers, tracing a fake pointed black nail across the waxwork of where my chest hair once grew.
“I work in the bio chemistry department at the college. We can go to my laboratory as soon as possible. All the answers you seek are in my research.”
“So you’re a real scientist Mrs. Von Fries?”
“Yes, please call me Doctor Yvette.”
“Should we finish our drinks?”
“Well you appear to be smoldering.”
“It will pass.”
“How fascinating, the controlled burn. No blaze at all… you really are a wonderful man.”
I smiled and relaxed into Doctor Yvette’s company. I felt her gaze. It seized my body more completely than the new scorching of my skin. Coughs were becoming more frequent around our table. A worried waiter bent down to my ear to whisper.
“Sir, no smoking in the restaurant.”
At the laboratory, Doctor Yvette drew some blood, smeared it onto a slide, and ushered me to the microscope. Apparently inside my blood lives the same molecular construction that can be found in oil, and as my internal organs interact with my blood over time, the build-up of this oil combusts. Oil. There is oil inside my blood.
“You truly are a wonderful curiosity, Ryan,” Doctor Yvette says as she pulls me in for a kiss. Her nails scratch my cheek; I want to combust right then and there, light the room.
After she pulls away I feel faint. No really, faint. My eyes diming, losing focus. I hit the ground. I register the impact without feeling it.
When I wake up, I am strapped to a gurney. My blood is being drained slowly via IV. There is another beside me and another and another. “Hey neighbor,” the woman on my left calls, “welcome to the hangar.” She nods her head upward.
Stenciled on the ceiling
Dylan is Dad who sneaks off in the small hours to write. Dylan is a writer who spends his afternoons as a dinosaur. He has work published in Scissors & Spackle, the Kentucky Review, decomP, and Crack the Spine. Work forthcoming at WhiskeyPaper. Find him on twitter @MacTaylor89
Photo credit: Tim Sackton via Flickr, all creative commons.