by Schuler Benson
In a third story office under stark halogen light, I first meet Doctor Randall McVay,
Who says, “Call me Randy,” and, extending his hand, he shakes mine.
He opines on his struggles, quitting smoking, working long hours, and such, so that, in my eyes,
He’s a person. Like me. Seguing smoothly, he asks if I want to talk about why I’m here. About the fire.
I look at the floor like it’s covered in salted slugs and I sigh, “Nobody died, everyone’s alive,
But I burned down a house, and as a first offender, I was sent here in lieu of jail time.”
Randy says we’ll get me all squared away, that these things can take time.
We’ll meet Thursdays at five. From the windowsill, an egg timer bleats and McVay
Tells me our session’s over. But I’m already gone. A girl smiles at me from his bookcase. She’s so alive,
In spite of an oak frame that wreathes her face like the lip of a coffin. I’m in a “foot-on-a-land-mine”
Moment, frozen. I ask who she is. McVay calls her Lorelei. She’s his new wife, his passion, his fire.
She’s 23. She’s an E.M.T. And she’s the apple of her husband’s gray eyes.
I’m light-headed as I turn to go, and I brace for that thing to unhinge and shudder behind my eyes.
Across my chin I scrawl a crooked grin, and say, “See you next Thursday at five.” I’ll be devoured by time
As I wait to see Lorelei’s picture again. A tremor begins to spall in my guts, a less familiar fire
Burning me from the inside for once. My thumbs tug at my sleeves like they fear McVay
May see the burns on my arms throb as my pulse jumps and sways. My lips cup one word: “Mine.”
And the shudder I feel inside is the same shudder I feel when I burn things alive.
Reaching my truck, I swoon under the hydra slithering and thumping in my ribs. We come alive
As I drive to buy a pack of McVay’s brand of smokes. Becoming human in my eyes,
He told me all I’d need to know. Tonight he’ll quit quitting smoking, and Lorelei will be mine.
After he falls asleep at his desk with a lit cigarette, it’ll just be a matter of time
Before the whole office goes up. I come back under night and skulk upstairs to find McVay
With his back to the door. I give him five seconds of the prod on high. And then the fire.
The Doc is propped in his chair when I put a lit, unfiltered red in his hand and stoke the cherry to fire
By blowing on the tip. Sparks float over a stack of papers like we’re in space. Then it’s alive.
To me it’s an instant, but I feel heat at my back and I know I’ve watched too long. McVay
Slumps over his desk, winged in flame, like a melting angel. Burning polymer singes my throat and eyes.
I break the stare, lurch towards the door. I’ll make it out, watch from the street like last time.
But a bookshelf, engulfed, collapses before me. Then I’m a canary in a coal mine.
I am not the fire’s. The fire is mine.
Jerking my coat collar over my face, I drop a shoulder and charge through roaring fire,
Out the window. As I race a shower of glass to waiting cement, I hear sirens. They won’t make it in time.
My back takes the brunt. Ribs snap wet like crab claws. Each breath bubbles and barbs. I am alive.
I cook on concrete til hands hook my shoulders and drag me through headlights, bleaching my eyes.
An oxygen mask gives me a sterile kiss; a gurney waits to whisk me away from what’s left of Dr. McVay.
“This one’s mine,” the paramedic holding me shouts, “Check the side, see if anyone else is alive!”
The office fire reflects off her badge, throwing glints in my eyes.
Her mouth says, “Take your time. Breathe. You’re okay.” Her nameplate says L. MCVAY.
Schuler Benson studies creative writing at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. His work has appeared in Hobart, The Fat City Review and Thunder Clap Press. He is a contributing writer for The Idle Class, and he recently placed second in Fallen Sky Review’s Speculative Fiction Launch Contest. He can be found on Twitter: @schulerbenson.