Fiction: Time to Burn

Long after the festival was over—as evening sniffed once, spun around twice and finally settled in—Michael was still blowing fire in the parking lot, big billows a kilometer high, balls of flame that seemed as if they would burn up the sky.

We watched for a while from the one building top nearby, Joshua and I, at what we thought would be a safe distance away from the flash zone, but as the explosions coming from Michael’s mouth expanded further, we began to think that there was no such thing as far enough. Joshua wondered aloud in whispers if Michael’s brain hadn’t broken at some point during the day, if perhaps being so close to the flames had taken its toll, leaving the inside of his head blistered and singed underneath the skull and skin.

“And what if, with his fried mind, he begins to imagine himself as a dragon,” Joshua said, “one that decides on the destruction of, say, this building instead of burning off the clouds. And here we are gawking, stuck on this roof?” Joshua’s voice had begun to grow shakier and louder as the awful and inevitable reality of his imaginings caught hold of him. “I mean, look around! There are no other trees, no other buildings. This one’s the only thing worth burning for as far as I can see. If this guy is really nuts—are you even listening to me? We should go!”

He stared at me in hopeful anticipation of my agreement, but I’d actually only heard the last word he’d said. “Yeah,” I replied, “Look at him go…”

I could not look away from Michael, his body smooth and toned, completely covered—as far as I could see at least—in silver festival paint. His chest expanded fully with each breath in and at the point when it looked like his lungs would burst, he unleashed all that was in him aimed at his smoldering fire stick; his painted body shimmered with each fireball breath.

Joshua was now beginning to panic; he looked toward the exit, then down to the street two stories below—as if trying to judge how much it would hurt to jump down and run like mad—then back to the exit. His whole body tensed as if he was fighting the urge to flee. But, then he sat down and began to cry, whispering softly, “Come on, Julian, come on, come on, come on, Julian, come on…” in a neverending mantra, until the fire clouds stopped suddenly.

Michael, still somehow glowing even in the dusk, turned his blazing eyes up toward us.

As Joshua threw his body down onto the rooftop gravel, trying unsuccessfully to drag me along out of sight, Michael took a step toward the building. I could not move. “Go, Joshua,” I said evenly, coldly.

As if I had somehow released him from chains, Joshua ran to the fire escape without another word; I could have heard his feet on the metal stairs, clumsy with fear, all the way to the asphalt at the bottom, but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I stood frozen, watching as Michael brought his ember up to his mouth and walked through the door below me.

“Yes, Joshua,” I said, now to no one, “you should go now, but I’m staying here. Don’t argue. It’s my choice, my turn in the fire, my time to burn.”

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