All the Grace was in the Fire
by Ryan Row
In his dreams, Asher was engulfed in flames. It was a pleasant, safe feeling. Like being in someone’s arms.
Fire had a certain kind of physical poetry, which was to him like music. A body that was perfect change. A deep, primal logic. A fluid existence. Short and violent and bright.
He could feel it, that violence, beating under his skin like a second vascular network running with blackened sunlight. Barely contained violence in his head.
Mostly, he was alone in his dreams, in a great empty place. And these were peaceful dreams where he would sit in an empty space and feel a soft sense of belonging. Sometimes there were others in his dreams, faceless, gentle figures, and those were bad dreams. Because he would touch them and they would scream and beat at themselves with their arms, and the fire would slowly eat away their skin. He could never guess his own intentions. If he wanted to protect them, or watch them burn.
He’d wake up sweating, or he’d wake up and his bed would be on fire.
“Cool necklace,” a girl said, staring at the clouded twist of clear stone wrapped in wire that hung from Asher’s neck. “What is it? Glass?” She had to yell over the deep distortion of the house party around them.
He smiled, and the smile seemed tightly held. Like it was tied down to something in the back of his head. “Beach glass,” he said, as he always did. Never explaining its strange shape or the odd, flickering way it held the light.
“That’s way cool. Where can I get one?”
“Sorry,” he said. Asher was tall with the long limbs of a boy who was almost a man. Seventeen year old bones. He had hair like a storm cloud, black and violent. Eyes as playful and shifty as sparks. His private smile. Like a firefly trapped in a jar, anxious and warm and sad. “It’s the last, lonely one in the world.”
She said something to that, but it was lost in the young motion of the air, the red-eye crowd around them. She was not pretty, but normal. Her skin had a slight brown color to it that made Asher think of beaches. Her black eyeliner made her eyes look huge and dark and more innocent than he supposed they probably were.
Sometimes Asher dreamed of plain girls like this, with clumsy eyeliner and kind, open voices, or of smoking under the bleachers with a few normal guys while folding pages of geometry homework into throwing stars and wishing cranes, or of swimming in Cotton Lake on the last day of school under a frozen yellow moon, surrounded by other boys, normal boys, screaming their existence into tiny air bubbles which burst on the surface of the lake with soundless pops. Then he’d wake up and his sheets would be singed and smoking, or his hands would be glowing yellow and red with barely suppressed heat, and the air would bend above him and the streetlight shadows through his curtains would scatter and bleed in his mad light. He had started several fires accidentally, and kept an industrial fire extinguisher under his bed. He had several smoke alarms in his room. To wake him up.
“What?” he yelled to the girl.
She stepped forward, onto her toes. Brushing his chest. He was tired of the dreams, assaulting the insides of his skull at all times. He was tired of the heat that boiled up from nowhere in his hands and in his blood. He wanted the cool moon. The beer-can haze and the beat that banished all thought.
“Maybe later, I can touch it,” she said.
The line made him shrink a little, inside. But so normal too, so safe, that he almost wept. And her breath was hot, but cool on his ear.
Asher was eight years old, home in the suburban sprawl of Cotton Hill, landlocked by concrete and non-native apple trees and unrolled strips of lime green grass. He held a little girl’s face in both his small hands. Dark eyes and a soft, round face. An easy smile the way light was easy. She was the most singular thing he had ever seen. Her skin was the golden-brown of ripe wheat, and it felt as smooth as an open sky in his palms. Her short black hair tickled the backs of his hands, and she spoke with a small, edgeless accent, lyrical and strange. Her breath smelled of the desert and unfamiliar fruits that sometimes left her lips and tongue a bright red.
“Your winters are so cold,” she said. He could see her breath. The strange, drifting shapes of her words. A fruitless apple tree shook above them, its leaves twirling like a thousand dry dancers.
“Let me warm you up,” Asher said, now pressing lightly with his hands. Feeling something huge moving under his skin.
And the smell of things burning.
The girl, whose name Asher still didn’t know, dragged her fingers down his pale, slim chest. Her nails were as smooth and cool as river stones. Her eyeliner was smeared and waxy, and she had a gentle voice that sounded as if it were wrapped in bandages.
“Your skin’s kind of hot,” she said.
He made some noise, neither agreeing nor contradicting. They were in a stranger’s bed. An anonymous white door on the second floor of Danny Newman’s house. He threw parties like tantrums, furious and pointless. Like youth itself. This was the first one Asher had been to. The bed smelled like fresh air with a fine, chemical lining. Some kind of detergent. Through the window, he watched the yellow lights of other lives go off and on in a void.
“You have plans for after graduation?” she asked, pushing into his silence. She wanted to talk about the future. What could he say? They were strangers, really, and she was drunk, he could tell, though he didn’t mind. He couldn’t seem to get drunk himself, no matter how much alcohol he consumed.
Her name was Faye, he learned, and he thought that sounded a lot like faith. Which he liked. She had plans. Very normal plans that rang in Asher’s head like bells. College. Job. An obtainable life. Professional skirts and short sensible heels. 2.5 misshapen copies of herself and someone whose face was foggy in her mind.
I could be you, Asher thought at the phantom. Why not?
He imagined living in a college dorm with a happy, thin boy who called his mother every Sunday at 4 p.m. His cramped desk, late nights writing papers on the ethics of postcolonial foreign politics, the physical process of starfish replication, on Poe or Elliot or Hemingway. Trying to explain the fire that burned his happy roommate to death while he slept with one hand curled around his phone.
Asher thought of his mother. On her hands and knees in her garden. The bent shape of her and the blank occupation of her face. The way his father drank. Silent. The ice casting tiny rainbows on his hands. The glaze over his eyes so thick he could have been blind. The hunk of beach glass was cool on his skin, as it always was.
“Oh, I’ve got a job lined up,” he said, twisting his fingers in her short hair, which made him think of wild grass. “I’m an evil wizard. Who’s gonna burn away all the evil in the world.”
And she laughed, as if this was a game she knew.
“Wouldn’t that make you a good wizard?”
The dull throbbing of music shook the floor in heavy, tired intervals, like the steps of something huge coming slowly toward them.
The TV was still on when Asher got home, and its wide, flat light made the room seem empty. His father was slouched in a chair, holding an empty scotch glass in one hand like a misshapen egg.
“Where’ve you been?” he asked.
“Why?” Asher replied.
“You missed some things,” he said, without looking up.
Asher looked to the TV. News. The body of a young girl had been found in a concrete storm drain by a six year old boy who had run away from an abusive home. The girl’s body was covered in deep, razor crisscross wounds. Her skin looked like a loosely woven sweater. A parental advisory flashed on screen, then a shot of the girl’s body with her genitals and face blurred. As if those were the grotesque bits of the world.
Asher could smell fresh soil from somewhere, and he tasted something bitter in the house like flat, canned beer. His mouth felt dry and sticky.
“God damn disgusting,” his father said. He sounded angry, and there was a personal edge in his voice that surprised Asher. He’d never heard it before.
“I’m so tired of all this,” he went on. Now the news pundit, a pretty woman with eyes like costume jewels, was talking about a fire that had broken out in a nearby city and collapsed a building, trapping a family in a small basement apartment for twenty-one hours.
His father laughed, and the TV shadows made his face seem ageless and free of the wrinkles Asher knew were there.
Faye was like shattered light bouncing through all the dark corners of Asher’s life. She ate ice cream with little flicks of her tongue like a lizard, and grinned in a hooked way. Asher had to eat his quickly, or it would melt in his hands. Her face was small and shaped like an apple. She was afraid of heights and of drowning, which she’d heard was very painful. Her mouth tasted like peaches and wax. Asher would put a hand flat on her exposed back and feel the wide beat of her heart. She might be napping, in the back of his Subaru on the beach towels he’d lain out. Parked at the end of a pounded dirt service road, under the humming energy of the heavy transformers of the Blank power plant and the black crisscross of the power lines.
“When I think about the future,” she’d say without turning around. “Sometimes I get scared.”
But her heartbeat was steady, and her skin was a pale cinnamon color, like milk and coffee, and she smelled of warm sea water and vanilla perfume.
They would see movies together, and she would kiss his neck in the dark while he melted the ice in their soda.
“Why do you like me?” he asked her once, he was looking at his phone, a newsfeed. A story about a young girl, pretty and wild like something growing in a forest, found in a dumpster with crosses cut deep into her eyes with what investigators now thought was a shaving razor.
Headline: Razor Killer Strikes Again!
“You’re pretty,” she’d said, pulling on his tangled hair a little. Not enough to hurt. “And I think we’re afraid of the same things.”
Asher found himself hoping this was true, but doubting it. She said she was afraid of the future. She would picture it as a person, and that person would be naked, bony and overweight at the same time. He would be wearing a blank mask with no eyes and holding a paring knife in one thin fist.
“What do you see?” she asked.
He would smile and tell her that the core of the sun burned at 27,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit. “At that temperature, all the water in our bodies would evaporate instantly, and all that would be left us is a little carbon cloud of black dust in the shapes of our shadows.”
“Cool,” she’d say.
Her parents spoke only Spanish, and they would wordlessly offer him slices of watermelon and a brown, cider like drink that was warm and tasted like star anise and mace and had shaded bits of fruit pulp in it. He found it calming, though he didn’t like the taste. He couldn’t quite identify it.
“They like you,” she said.
This made him feel strange. And he would have to excuse himself, sit on their toilet with the lid down and burn off the extra heat in his hands. Shaking and glowing a kind of pure white that made all the familiar details of his skin vanish.
Meanwhile, other things fell apart. There was a black spot in Asher’s driveway where dripping oil had soaked into the concrete over a period of years. He didn’t recognize it. His father’s car used to hide it. Where was he now?
It seemed that God had taken his father’s place. His mother prayed while digging with a trowel that was pointed like a diamond. She prayed in the shower, a toneless repetition. Please Lord. Please Lord. Please Lord. She prayed under her breath like she was whispering in someone’s ear. She prayed for everything, openly, in Asher’s presence. Speaking clearly and directly as if God was another person in the room with them. She prayed that the sparrows would stop eating the half-ripe strawberries she tried grow in the backyard. She prayed Asher would find his way and stop setting fires. She prayed for strangers, names Asher didn’t know, but never for his father, or if she did, she did so silently. As if she thought Asher might have forgotten him, and any mention of his name might set him off and he would burn down the house. Maybe burn down the whole world. Who could say? Asher was a little crazy. You could see it in his eyes like little flecks of hot metal.
One night he came home and found her gardening in a fragile yellow cone of porch light. She had an old portable radio with her; she was a creature of habit. There were more mutilations in the city. Now, they revealed, the deep incisions, made maybe not with a shaving razor, but a medical scalpel, maybe multiple tools, were made while the victims were still alive.
“Are you okay?” Asher said. He could smell liquor, and it reminded him of his father, a great, alcoholic shadow just beyond the edges of his vision. His mother was trimming a rosebush by flashlight, kneeling on one knee. The yard was choking with plant life. Neatly cut grass and crawling vines as thick as paint over of the fence and porch railing. Flowers, delicate and thorned, and puny fruits struggling in the Midwestern spring lined up against the house. In the strange light, under the washout blankness of city sky, it all seemed unfamiliar to Asher. As if he’d never been here before.
She said she was fine, but didn’t turn around. The night was warm and gritty in Asher’s mouth. The porch light cast a blurred shadow of his figure over the yard, though it was misshapen and could have easily been a stranger’s.
“I’m thinking of replacing these,” she said, holding a fat rosebud, in full bloom, up in her hand. To Asher it looked as if it was falling apart. Loose petals only barely hanging on. He supposed there was a beauty in that, too. “I’m tired of clipping thorns. There’s not enough softness in the world. I want something soft.”
“Like what?” Asher asked.
“Like…” she trailed off. Asher cupped one hand over his ear, and he could hear the ocean. The roses were giving off a torn grass scent, and he was wondering where all this was headed. “Like feathers.”
Asher laughed, a short, single exhale of breath.
“You gonna plant a bird?” Asher said, lowering his hand. He had a sudden image of burying a dead chicken. Holding it up by its long, broken neck.
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe I’ll keep doves. If you could manage not to set them on fire.”
She said this in a flat, distant way. As if the distance between them was great and empty. He was no more than ten steps from her, but his shadow, nipping at her ankles, made it seem further.
The radio story was fading into a flat, musical transition between programs. Asher could feel something hiding in those tones. Over the roof of their neighbor’s house, Asher caught a glimpse of a bat diving through a streetlight. A mangled shadow.
“Careful, son. Careful.” And she gestured to his waist without looking up.
He looked down to his hands, the only tools he’d ever had to hold onto things. They were shaking and clenched, and they lit the air around them red, and waves of heat bent the world between them. He could barely feel it.
“Oh Lord,” she said, still inspecting her roses. “There’s just nothing good left.”
That night Asher dreamed about the beginning of the world. He was not surprised to see, it began in fire. He expected it would end that way, too.
When Asher was six years old, his family went on vacation in Hawaii. On the last night, his mother took him to see a troupe of fire dancers, a show put on by their hotel.
They were clumsy, college students on summer break with little training, and they held the torches as far out from their bodies as they could. Two had sun-browned skin and one was very pale under a moonless sky. The starlight was sharp and cold on them, and it gave their skin the inhuman smoothness of glass or stone. They had no grace beyond whatever electric spark originally set their bodies in motion when they were born. The thin grace of life.
The fire, though, moved with all the flowing purpose of light itself, the almost solid form of a pure energy, unrestricted by a heavy skeleton or clumsy, jumping muscles. There was an ease to it, a natural freedom that Asher had only ever seen before in dreams. A rightness he had never felt.
The beach was hard and white as a giant’s bone beneath him. The cold fire of the stars blinked sharp beyond the formless shifting of the ocean. It all seemed as real as a dream; it had the intimate quality of imagination. His mother’s arm hung over his shoulders, heavy with loose skin. She whispered hard to him and flecks of spit and hot breath hit his ear and cheek, words he now remembered as, “They’re going to burn themselves.”
The other tourists sat around them in the sand, several were on their phones and most had slack, glazed looks on their faces. Disinterest, boredom. His father was not with them. For a moment, Asher imagined him sitting at the hotel bar, refilling his scotch and breaking ice cubes in his teeth. This was the image he would always have of him, though where it came from he wasn’t sure.
The artificial smell of lighter fluid and gasoline came in waves, thick in the air. And the shallow beating of his own heart was the only signal he had that this was all real. The fire seemed to jump, to spark in time with the pulsing of his blood, and Asher felt his heart shrink and become heavier, like a fist or a stone in his chest.
The dancers cast soft bars of shadow as they moved. Arms held high into the night and spinning. They looked almost like they were praying. To what, Asher couldn’t say.
The broad smell of the ocean, salt and mud, cooled him. And the shadows burned in his eyes and made them tear. He felt a slow, burning sensation in his mind, as if an ember, a shard of fire, had lodged itself between the folds of his brain like a seed stuck between his teeth. He tasted smoke and metal, and the whoosh and crack of the flames was deafening.
He closed his fist in the grit of sand, and felt an intense heat, like pain, in his closed palm. But he didn’t stop.
“Are they angels?” he asked, eyes not following the dancing figures, but tracing the inhumanly graceful movement of their flames.
His mother laughed, a hard sound, even then, that did not believe in angels and no longer looked for the strange beauty in the world. Under the stars or in the firelight.
Later, under the false, electric lights of a narrow hotel hallway, his mother walked ahead and chatted pleasantly with him, though he was saying nothing in return. She spoke about their “exotic escape” and carefully avoided any mention of his father. Asher opened his fist. And found a twisted piece of new glass. Burned black and smooth as a secret.
It was surprisingly soft, in his hand.
They were in the back of his car with the windows down because, otherwise, the closed space would become a perfect pocket of dense heat, and Faye would sweat and sweat and Asher would feel bad, watching her pant. They were parked under the power lines. A ways down Asher saw a small row of dark birds perched along one of the wires. A few took sudden flight and the black line shook in their wake.
“I’ve been thinking about what’s soft in the world,” Asher said. It was after, and she was turned away, like she usually was right after they finished. She would turn back to him soon. He never asked her about this, but he suspected she needed the time to heal something that had opened up inside her. Something warm and bleeding under her skin. They were similar in this way.
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?” Her tone was light, playful, but edged too. And her shoulders looked as slender and far away as the crescent of daytime moon hanging beyond the power lines. Fading into pale blue.
Asher was on his back, on his phone, looking at pictures of runaways with shredded skin and empty eyes. And pictures of a man in a trim suit with a handsome face, Greek god perfect, and teeth as white as the sun who had a possible alibi, very possible, though not a plausible one. Some on the internet claimed this man was a god of death, and that’s what they called him online. A drug pusher. A pop-up club operator. A kingpin. A death god. Something about this was wrong. Asher smelled the faintest remnants of sand from the towels beneath them. The hunk of beach glass, misshapen and strange, was so heavy on his chest it was hard to breathe.
“When I was eight years old,” Asher said. “There was this family on my street. They were from Egypt, and that was an odd thought for me. Whenever I thought of them being from Egypt, I saw pounded gold and deserts. Their daughter was close to my age.” Asher’s voice was normal and clear. Without looking away from his phone, he reached out and touched Faye’s back. Her heartbeat was a small thing in his hand.
“There was an accident,” he went on. “Her face got burned. Badly burned. I remember the smell, like meat and sulfur from her burning hair. I smell it sometimes while I’m driving or sitting in Trig’ looking for the angles of elevation and the angles of depression. Sometimes it’s like she’s standing over my shoulder. I can feel the heat from her skin on the back of my neck, and I’ll turn around and see someone’s shadow moving behind a corner. I try to ignore it.”
Asher focused on Faye’s heartbeat, always a setting sun in her chest, almost under an infinitely broad horizon, but he could sense a change in it. Like a loosening grip. Like someone walking away.
On his phone, he was reading about the white toothed man and his work. About the dozens of party kids and homeless who died when his gang started cutting their drugs with crushed bath salts and tea spoons of rat poison. They died with blue foam in their mouths and open red eyes like cracked jewels. All speculation, of course. Hard speculation.
Asher was connecting things in his mind, like connecting stars to make hollow constellations of monsters. The dates of the Razor Killer’s victims’ disappearances coincided exactly with the dates of the death god’s pop-up clubs all around the city.
“I’m sorry,” Faye said. And Asher wasn’t sure what she meant by that.
She moved a little, and he let his hand fall away. She rolled over to face him. Her thin arms crossed over her bare chest. The sun on her pale brown skin made her look unbelievably soft, as if she were about to melt away into the light.
“We all wish we could take some things back,” she said.
And she laughed, nervous, and it didn’t reach any further than the back of her throat.
He put down his phone and turned toward her. Took her face in both his hands. Her eyeliner, smudged and dark, made her eyes look unfamiliar and bottomless. He was struck that she had a history too, as twisted and deep as his own.
“Not me,” he said. “I wish for other things.”
“What things?” Outside, the rest of the birds took flight and left the wire empty, humming with a voice that had no words. Only a dry, crackling energy.
“No more pain for us,” he said. The towel was rough under his pale body, and Faye’s skin felt cool, though it was quickly heating to match his own steadily high temperature.
“Your hands are really hot,” she said, but made no attempt to move them away.
“Sometimes,” he said. “I want to burn down the whole world.”
Then he saw a smile in her eyes, amused shards of light.
“You’re a little dangerous, aren’t you?” she said, and he could feel her jaw moving in his hands as she spoke.
“Do I seem that way?” he said, smiling his own crooked, tangled smile. “Must be cause I’m an evil wizard, and all.”
And his heart beat violence in his chest.
The god of death had another pop-up club opening in just two days.
Asher leaned against a lamppost while the yellow lights of the city blinked on in pairs around him like opening eyes. Across the street, a squat brick warehouse shook with young, violent life. Through the slat windows near the roof, Asher saw purple and blue laser lights cutting like knives, and he could hear the steady, painful rhythm, always beating under the skin of things. He felt it in the air like a temperature.
A thin crowd of young men and women mulled near the doors. They shifted from foot to foot and grinned wide and skeletal. Two bouncers, built like clay golems, hard and dry, looked blankly into the crowd.
He checked his phone. Strange glow in his hand.
Pop-up club, The Coffin, operated by thugs and casual murderers. Owned by a god of death with perfectly square teeth, like white tombstones.
Asher shut off his phone, and the world bent around him. A heat rose from his skin, obscuring his face.
It was like his dreams, where the flames held him, and he, at last, felt safe. But this was no one’s dream.
Instinctively, like ripping their hands from a hot stove, the crowd moved away from him. Some took out their phones and started recording or taking pictures.
The air was violent motion and distorting heat around his skin, and later, no one would be able to describe his exact features. He was a flower the way a fire is a flower. A dark, human shaped center and burning petals of heat.
Young voices muttered around him. Someone laughed.
“Shit,” he heard someone say. “Nothing’s real again.”
Asher stopped in front of the golem bouncers, who seemed unsure, but did not step aside. In the dim light, their skin looked gray and hard. Qualities of stone. And this made it easier.
“The fuck are you supposed to be?” Golem One said, though his eyes were worried and confused.
Golem Two said nothing, eyeing him warily.
Asher smiled, and if they could have seen it, they would have called it painful. “Where’re the lost children?”
His voice was airy and hot. Cracking like a fire. Unknown but familiar.
Golem One chuckled and started to move forward. Asher waved his arm at him in a quick flicking motion, as if swatting a fly, and his coat exploded into flame.
The membrane of the crowd burst like a soap bubble. A few scattered into the darkness of the city. Some continued filming with jittery, excited hands. Golem One beat wildly at his chest and swore.
Asher moved forward. “Where’re the lost children kept?”
Golem Two was no longer stone colored. His face was blank and serious and pale. His hands were open and empty at his sides, as if he was used to facing darker things. Things bigger than himself.
“Basement,” he said, not looking away from the motion of color and light that was Asher’s new face, though the heat was making the Golem’s eyes water.
“One chance, leave now and I won’t burn your tongue out of your mouth for all the sin you have done and let happen.”
Golem One was rolling on the ground now, but the fire wouldn’t go out. He started tearing at his clothes, grunting feral and low. Golem Two seemed to consider, briefly, watching the world move in Asher’s skin, then he turned and started walking quickly away.
The city smelled like sulfur and meat.
Golem One, bare chested, pink and smooth with new burns, stood. Breathing in wet spaces of time. Holding the dark void of a pistol in his hand.
“Same offer for you,” Asher said, without turning to look at him.
The three quick shots were huge holes in the sound of the night.
The iron and copper bullets burst like metallic fireworks on Asher’s new, outer skin. Thick and hot as the unreachable surface of a star. The heated shards of the broken bullets, glowing sparks, ricocheted in all directions, and Golem One made a grunting, strangled sound, and wavered. At the same time, one of the walking cameras cried out and fell clutching a leg. Several empty spaces had opened in Golem One’s chest and face. Holes where skin used to be. Overflowing quick with a red that was almost black.
Asher could hear one of the cameramen, repeating something under his breath.
“I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming.” Like a prayer. Desperate and hollow.
“No,” Asher said, almost to himself. “You’re not.”
Later, watching one of these phone clips with Faye that showed him violent and unrecognizable, the beach glass around his neck a glowing red fist and the rest of him a featureless wave of heat, Faye will start laughing and not be able to say why or stop. Laughing so hard her stomach will hurt, and her wide, warm tears will make the world seem softer to her.
Asher’s ears rang with the gunshots, but he felt as light as flame. He waved his hand, like letting a small, angry part of himself go, and there was screaming and the smell of things burning. Which he knew already, and had known for years.
Bits of ash swirled over fan blades and in bars of electric light, and the basement was thick with smoke. Everything smelled like smoke. Burning carpet and alcohol fires and men’s skin. Melting gold teeth and popping eyes. Burst needles and neon patterns in the smoke.
Many had run, but many had stayed to be burned. Asher had told the ones filming to stay outside, and they had obeyed, shaking hands pointing at the smoldering corpse of the bouncer. The bullets in the melted gun had exploded in his hand and blown it away at the wrist.
The basement was almost empty now. Above, a throng of feet still twirled and beat in the laser light of the club dance floor. Young men and women dancing to a rhythm that was so steady it seemed that it could go on forever.
The last one, a short, white skinned man with red hair and wild blue eyes, fired a silver revolver over and over at Asher’s unsure form. The twist of light he now was. The bullets popping on his skin in electric yellow gasps of shattered light. And screeches of metallic sound like cut off screams. There was a sound like something huge taking a breath, and the red haired man burst into flame. The screaming went on only for a short time. And Asher could barely hear it through his ringing ears.
Earlier, the owner, the death god, with two gold plated pistols going off at random in his curled fists like cheap toys or movie props, had refused to scream. He had laughed with his pretty green eyes as open as broken windows, and he shot his guns like he was playing a game. Firing first at Asher, then into the ceiling trying unsuccessfully to make a crystal chandelier fall on him, until the fire had taken all his air.
“I apologize for nothing,” he said, as the clean perfection of his face boiled and his teeth popped like kernels of corn in his mouth.
Asher could feel a smile on his face like dry plaster, but inside, inside the crooked embrace of his bones, his heart was seizing wild and painful. “Neither do I.”
Behind the red haired man’s corpse a heavy door was set in the stone wall and shut with a thick brass padlock. It melted easily in Asher’s hand. Heat haze fingers through which he could now feel the world slowly coming apart.
It was a concrete room, small. No furniture. Starkly lit by fluorescent tubes along the ceiling. Spray painted in white across the back wall were the words “Though my actions I am known.” Two girls and a boy, naked, right around Asher’s age, on the floor or leaning against the walls. Asher didn’t touch them or move toward them, but he told them they were free in his new, crackling voice.
They stared at him, confused and distant. They were thin, a pale thin that made them all look delicate and beautiful, and they all had deep, open cuts on their exposed chests and arms. Lines in their skin that were wet and showed the dark chaos inside them. The boy had cuts on his face too. Asher could smell strawberry perfume from their skin mixed with the high scent of urine and dried sweat and metallic blood.
The boy, whose dark skin made Asher think of the empty night sky, asked, “Are you an angel?”
Later, Asher would turn that question in his mind. Over the years, though all the burning skin, and the writhing human forms, and the flaming cries of his reality and of his dreams, his burning dreams, even that coming night. Sometimes he would burn that question into the walls of whatever den of chaos and pain he was breaking apart and burning down. Tracing the words with a finger like the point of a smoldering iron. In a year, he would carve the question into a flat slab of granite, like a tombstone, growing out of the exact middle of his new base. A small, dried aquifer under the city, lit gold and red by uneven, glowing chunks of glass the size of shaking fists. His broken epitaph. The question of his nature he could never answer when looking into any bent mirror he passed by. Melting in his wake to silver puddles like pools of mercury.
But that first time, he did answer. In the heat of the moment, and softly, in the voice of fire.
“If you want me to be.”
And the boy nodded and never seemed to blink. The huge, glowing ember of glass hanging from Asher’s neck reflected in his dark, unbelieving eyes.
“Don’t worry,” Asher said, again, almost to himself. “I’m real. I exist. I promise you.”
But tomorrow, they would be calling him Mirage on the news and the internet, and he would take that name into himself like a donor’s organ, stitching it into the skin of his identity. The bending of light. The heating of air. Until everything danced without edges and with a borrowed grace that was fleeting.
When he finally went home the next morning, carrying the rising sun on his back, his mother would be waiting for him. She must have heard the news somehow, because she will tell him that she is proud of him, but she’ll refuse to meet his eyes. And will say that she will never tell anyone what she knows. Later, he will think of this time, the pink sun in the window, his mother in a nightgown, fragile and human. Her scent, freshly opened earth, strangely muted. He will think of this time as when he finally lost her. From then on he will notice that her hands are always tight and nervous in his presence. Afraid to touch him. Hard to blame her. She will keep doves, and coo to them with sounds that cool him like ice water down his neck. And he will sit under his window listening to her stroke them. And close his eyes.
He led the broken ones out of the basement, but stayed well away. He knew that if they touched him, they would burst, spontaneous and wild, into all-consuming flames. A death as graceful and painful as a birth. But he didn’t want them to see the shrunken, skeletal forms of the newly dead either. He wanted to protect them from something nameless. Something like a second adulthood that was painful and heavy to hold. So he told them to close their eyes. Close their eyes and follow the warmth.
And he would try to do the same.
Ryan Row’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Quarterly West, Shimmer, Interzone, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Award, and holds a B.A in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He lives in Oakland California with a beautiful and mysterious woman. You can find him online at ryanrow.com