These instances at first seemed to be the product of a special effect. The first time she thought she had somehow wandered into a movie. She expected to turn around and find spotlights and a camera crew, a director seated in a folding chair and a small crowd of adoring fans. She turned around, saw taxi cabs driving with reckless abandon, chic young men on coffee runs, and women pushing their children in strollers while jogging. When she turned back to her acquaintance, he was nothing but soot.
For a while afterwards she tried to piece together what had happened. She was sane, she was certain, but how long would she stay that way? She thought of God, she thought perhaps the burning bush idea was tired and now he was speaking to her with a different severity. If it happens again, she won't turn away from it. She promised herself she would look into it until she learned whatever message she was supposed to pass on.
After spending a slow Saturday evening at the bar around the corner from her apartment, she lit a cigarette outside. A man approached her softly, as if she had choreographed their meeting. He asked if she wouldn't mind lighting his cigarette, and just as she did, she ignited him, too. This must be it, she thought, it has happened again and this time I will not lose my focus. She stared into the flames, watched the flesh drip away from the skull. She felt as if she were meditating beside a fountain in a Japanese rock garden. Body became water over stone, the movement of the whole sunk into tides of a simpler natural order. She didn't know bone was so flammable, she never before realized how much combustible energy the human body contained. The flames almost licked her face and she was sweating profusely but she would not turn her back on him. She perspired into her eyes but she did not blink. She marveled at the way in which blood works like gasoline to aid fire in devouring a hearth of bone. Among the whispers of flame, she listened for a voice. She heard nothing but crackling, and thought of summer camp.
Disappointed but not discouraged, she went home. She made herself some coffee and turned on the TV. She felt bored. The excitement was gone, the surge of adrenaline had left her. The absence of divine intervention had given her the opinion that she must be the cause of the fires. She was an arsonist, she, by static or telepathic means, could turn humans into coals. She tried staring at her cat. He mewed and fell swiftly into dreams.
It was clear she couldn't tell anyone, she would live a life in solitude like all the superheros she'd ever had any interest in. She was glad for her disinterest in her own appearance now that pruning herself in a mirror had become a danger. She reclined on the sofa and readied for sleep by counting her breaths. When she reached forty-three, she was asleep.
At 8:30am, her commute to Liberty Mutual was filled with food trucks and cheap delicatessens, but one cart always seemed to have a longer line than the rest. This morning, she decided to see what the fuss was about. She waited on line and tried not to look anyone in the eye. She had awoken from bad dreams, dreams in which she was arrested for murder, dreams that collaged childhood nightmares with a picnic in Hell. She wore the largest, darkest sunglasses she had.
The man behind the stove top beckoned for her to order. She hadn't made up her mind yet. She asked if he could cook egg whites. He said no. She asked if he had turkey bacon. He said no and told her to get her Jenny Craig shit out of the way if she wasn't planning on ordering real food. Don't you see the line?
She did see the line. She had taken her sunglasses off to see it more clearly, and then turned her gaze back to the greasy, hairy little man using his bare hands to serve customers. She imagined the flames underneath the frying eggs picking up a little air and finding their way to the stained apron, then to the huge t-shirt, then the beard, the mustache, eyelashes, brows, and hair.
Are you going to order or not? She blinked. She wanted him to burn. She wanted the whole fucking line to burn. She was waiting for it but it didn't happen. Give me a coffee, she said while taking out her wallet. It took her a bit of time to find it in her handbag because she had to bypass a number of insurance claims, magazines, and newspaper clippings. Finally she saved her wallet from the abyss of material disarray and looked up to face her aggressor. He wasn't there.
All around her people were screaming, their high pitch cries pricked her ears. Voices scratched their way into her consciousness, pointing her attention to the flames that climbed higher and higher behind the cart. Everything in front of her was aflame, the tires underneath the shelves of pastries and bagels were melting and the smell of rubber choked her. The burnt eggs released a sulphuric odor that seasoned the smoking flesh. The line of hungry office folks had scrambled, some men were crying and one woman had ripped her clothing off and declared the Apocalypse.
Maybe she wouldn't go to work today. She never calls in sick and everyone deserves a personal day once in a while. It was sunny, Spring was well on its way, and soon she would get to retire her winter coat for good. She gathered herself, straightened up, and made her way to Central Park. She was still hungry, and thought a tuna sandwich and a cup of tea would be reason enough to celebrate.