Thursday, 17 February 2022 15:49

Breathe You In by Rubella Dithers

** Trigger warning: Male character stalks and kidnaps a female.

Breathe  You In by Rubella DithersThe hills are burning again.

They begin where our backyard ends. Past the empty rabbit hutches, the trampoline, forbidden after my cousin broke his leg, the pool and its chlorine miasma. The slopes roll for miles, golden, thick with sunburnt grass that rustles as sparrows and finches hunt for larvae and seeds. Their small chirps punctuate the predawn air, most days. Days when the patio door glass is cool against my cheeks, fogged from water collected between the panes. The dogs run over, push my legs with their long snouts, paw at the door. On those good mornings I let them out.

But today the glass is hot, threatening to blister my fingers. The hills are crested with flames which span the ridge in a flickering wall. The air is thick with grey particulate, the pool a vile slurry, the sky an unsettling orange. The dogs bark and whine.

Mom is in the kitchen. I hear the coffee grinder whir just as the electric kettle clicks off.

 “The hills are burning.” I get as close to the glass as I dare. A thin tendril of fire breaks off, slithers toward our fence. It’s hundreds of feet away. I’m not worried yet.

 

Mom comes into the living room with a mug of coffee and sits on the couch, staring at her phone.

“Did you hear me? I said the hills are burning.”

“Again? That’s the third time this week.” She blows across the surface of her coffee before taking a sip. “Does that mean you want a ride?”

“No, it’s fine. I can walk.”

#

I pull down my mask when no one is around, take deep breaths that make my chest ache. Breathing the smoke that makes my cough worse.

It's not until my lungs seize up climbing the steps to the school's front door that I realize I left my inhaler at home.

#

"You should exercise more." Killian leans out of his desk, his voice pitched so only I can hear. He always has something to say. I’m wheezing like I just finished a triathlon.

"I have asthma, asshole. It's not a weight thing." He won’t believe me. I shouldn't waste my breath. I shouldn’t care.

"I didn’t say it was, Bruiser." His eyes look concerned, but he uses that name. I bet he’s smiling under that mask.

“Fuck you,” I say through clenched teeth. My chest is tight and burning. He’s still looking at me, and I tense up.

Breathe in, breathe out.

I take out my notebook and look at the board. I’m going to power through it.

Stupid idea.

It never works.

#

Ash dusts the windowsills. By lunch it’s 63mm high. Someone’s been keeping track on a window in trig. It’s broken the month’s record according to this indelible chart, and still growing.

The bell rings and I join the stream of students flowing through the wind tunnel masquerading as a hall. We fight against the fans, making our slow way to the cafeteria. The roaring air filters make conversation impossible as we’re blasted cold air that carries only a faint, throat drying reek of smoke.

The food line starts outside of the cafeteria. I stand in it for a few minutes, watching classmates throw pens and trash and shout over each other and the air filters. I don’t want to deal with this today, so I decide on lunch from the vending machines. Again. They’re on the other side of the school, which is, you know, really great and convenient for me.

When I finally get over there, I dig a few coins out of my backpack. It’s not much. Definitely enough to get a Shasta, which is only 35 cents. I’ve never seen Shasta anywhere else. The can-shaped plastic buttons are scratched and fogged over so it’s impossible to see what you’re getting.

I push my loose change into the machine and push a button, hoping for the best. A can clatters out. Diet Chocolate. Putting aside the question of why anyone thought chocolate, much less diet chocolate, was a good soda flavor, I see if I can afford something to eat. I scrounge for more change, but all I find is an old bus token covered in fuzz and eraser shavings. I didn’t even know bus tokens still existed. There go my plans of an exotic charcuterie of diet chocolate soda and cheezy nips.

I hear footsteps and loud voices and cringe at the overt boyishness of it all, hoping it’s no one I know. Or who knows me.

So of course it’s Killian, laughing like an idiot, with some other guys from whatever sports team he’s on. When our eyes meet he stops laughing. He smiles. Their masks are mostly hanging off one ear or around their necks, but once they see me they start pulling them back up.

Killian walks straight at me.

“Sup Bruiser!”

“Shut up shut up shut up shut up,” I say under my breath.

“What’s that? I can’t hear you.”

I move aside so the guys can use the machines. The sound of the coil turning, the bag of chips falling, the plastic flap opening and slapping shut. It all makes me hungry. Maybe I should have stayed in the cafeteria.

Killian is right in front of me now. His eyes leave mine, drifting down.

“Is that all you’re having?”

“What?” I look at the can I’m still holding. “Oh. Yeah, I’m not that hungry.”

“Are you sure? I could get something for you.”

“No, yeah, I’m fine. Just gonna enjoy this, uh, chocolate drink. Yum.” Yum, christ.

“Okay…Well, we’re going to hang out on the back stairs, you wanna come?”

I back away and wave my hands. “No, I’m fine. I got some homework to finish.”

“Uh, alright. See you in English?”

“Yep, sure, see you then.”

I make a break for it and find an empty classroom to hide in.

I can’t wait for this day to be over.

#

At 2 PM the sirens start. Even with one right on top of the school it’s hard to hear the voice telling us that this is not a test. When the teacher’s back is turned I text my mom under my desk. I keep checking it for notifications, but the only one I get is from the city saying to shelter in place.

#

School’s over. The ash is piled on the street like some warped version of snow. I’ve never seen snow, but I’m guessing it’s a lot less disgusting to walk through.

I’ve called my mom like a million times and she’s not answering. I think about trying my dad and realize I don’t have his number. Maybe the school does, but I doubt it. Almost everyone is gone by now, people who have their own cars or friends with cars or parents who remember they exist. I know my mom knows I exist, I’m not saying she doesn’t. But sometimes it feels like she doesn’t know I’m present.

And great, who comes down the hallway but Killian. I hate how I can recognize his footsteps, who does that? I stare out the narrow window of the front doors. A tree across the street is lit up like a torch. It’s blackened trunk cracks under the flames.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

I resist the urge to roll my eyes. “No, I’m just taking in the view.”

He looms over me to look out the window too.

“Yeah, it’s looking really...abyssal out there.”

And now I do roll my eyes. “Was that on the vocab quiz last week?”

He laughs and it makes me feel weird. Like, I’m trying to be mean but it doesn’t work on him and now I feel like a bitch for no reason. He backs up and I turn around to face him.

“Hey, if you don’t have a ride I can give you one. I just need to grab my gear from my locker and we can go.”

“No, I’m fine. I’m just going to walk.” I push the door open. I see the alarm blink but it doesn’t go off. A few flakes of ash float in.

“Are you sure it’s safe? With your lungs?”

That makes me grimace. I wish I hadn’t told him. “I’m sure, I’m fine, I do it all the time.”

“Wait, ‘all the time’?”

I start moving outside. I really, really, really wish I had my inhaler. I can already feel the strain on my lungs.

“Hold on, Brui…”

I shut the door behind me and I hear it lock. Killian’s trying to get it open but it’s already going through the decontamination cycle. The steps here are shallow and I almost fall when I misjudge them. But I’m fine. Really. The back parking lot is practically empty, and it’s criss-crossed with so many tire tracks I can walk directly on asphalt. When I get to the sidewalk it’s another story. The ash is at least a foot high now, but it’s light. I can kick through it easily, but not too much otherwise it flies up into my face and I’m coughing and struggling to breathe and holding myself together even though my chest burns and I’m crying.

It’s only a 20 minute walk.

I can make it.

#

I’m taking shelter at a bus stop a few blocks from home. No bus will come by, and if it did this is the closest stop to my house so it doesn’t matter. I’m just resting, a short rest, gathering my strength. I want to cough but I know it’ll make things worse. It wouldn’t be productive, as my ENT says.

I can barely see in front of me, everything is smoke and ash. It’s almost summer but the sun is completely blocked out. It’s almost summer and it’s freezing. My arms are tight against my chest. I pull at the underwire of my bra, trying to make more room for air, but the air is bad and it’s pointless. My mask is stained grey. My shoes, grey. My tights, my skirt, my hoodie, grey grey grey. I’m only three blocks away, I’m almost there. I can make it. I can make it. I can’t make it.

I want to cry but it would fog up my glasses and I just. Can’t. Deal with it.

Someone honks a horn and I jump, disturbing the greasy ash that has fallen on me. How long have I been sitting here? They honk again. Their headlights are a faint red glow. Then I hear their door open.

“Yo, Bruiser! Get in!”

Of course. 

I push myself up, dirtying my already filthy hands, and I can’t wait to get home and take a shower. I trudge to his truck. The lowest step is waist high. I hesitate, not wanting to be this close to him, not wanting to get the seat dirty. But he leans over and pulls me in. It feels like I float into the seat but that can’t be right. I’m not getting enough air.

Suddenly we’re in my driveway and walking up to the door. How does he know where I live? He’s carrying me but that doesn’t seem right either. He opens the door with my keys. When we get inside the dogs say nothing, they just stare from my bedroom door.

“Mom…”

“Don’t talk. Where’s your inhaler?”

“Room. Drawer. Wait!”  I start coughing. I don’t want him to see my stuff. He sets me down gently then walks directly to my room. The dogs part, and the way their heads bob irritates me for some reason. Traitors. He’s already back with my inhaler and a spacer and my mask is down and I can finally, finally breathe again. My lungs relax. I can relax. I think. The air is clean in here, though I can see the flames have burned through the fence out back and are sizzling in the pool. The dogs come closer, nudge my stained clothes.

“You should get changed.” He’s looking at me like he rescues asthmatic girls from the pyre that is this town on a daily basis. Like there’s something he finds amusing about this. The power’s out and the generators haven’t kicked in. I’ll probably have to go to the garage and start them myself. So it’s dark, except for the fire outside, and the dogs’ eyes, big and glowing.

I start getting up and Killian’s there again, supporting me. I glare at the ground but say nothing since this is already too much. I should be able to take care of myself. I should have a backup inhaler with me instead of losing three in a month.

I shake him off when I get to the bathroom. I shut the door and wash what I can. I don’t know if my clothes can be salvaged. I leave them in a pile and pull my pajamas out of the laundry basket.

No matter how hard I scrub, I can’t get the ash from under my nails.

#

In the living room Killian is kneeling next to the dogs, running his hands through their long, pale fur. I want to ask him if he washed his hands first, but don’t. I see he doesn’t have any ashes on him, that cinders haven’t burned a thousand tiny holes in his clothes like they do with all of mine.

He must know I’m watching because he says, without looking at me, “Feeling any better?”

“Yeah. Thanks. Look, my mom will probably be home soon so you should...”

He stands up, dusts his pants off for no reason because there isn’t a fucking spot on them. As he walks closer to me, he asks, “Wouldn’t she want me to ‘shelter in place’?”

I pull my shirt down, as if it could hide anything, but he stops. Reaches out. Flicks something out of my hair.

Where the hell is my mom? God, I hope she’s okay.

“Don’t look so sad about it, I get it. Later, Bruiser.”

I walk him to the door because I’m not a total asshole (yet), and I also want to make sure it’s locked. And I lock it. And sit on the couch. My phone dangles from my hand. The dogs settle their long bodies around me and I sink in to watch as the room fills with more shadows.

There’s a knock at the door. It startles me, but the dogs don’t react. I’m starting to think they might be broken. I tiptoe to the door and press against it, raising my eye slowly to the peephole. Once I confirm who it is, I open the door and don’t bother sounding even a little nice.

“What is it?”

“I was just wondering if you wanted a ride to school tomorrow?”

I take a moment to answer because I’m watching the ash move around him. But not really around him, because I see a flake approach his cheek, then go through him, but not, because they are two distinct things and trying to understand it is making my head hurt.

“B?”

“What?”

“You do that a lot, don’t you?”

“Do what?”

“Space out.”

I shake my head.

“No, you do. I said, ‘Do you want a ride to school tomorrow?’”

The door buzzes a contaminate warning at me. I need this to end.

“Yeah, sure, fine, see you tomorrow, thanks again, bye.” I shut the door and lock it before he can respond and plod back to my couch and my dogs.

I stay up until midnight for mom but she never comes home.

#

I get up early so I can wash my hair. Smoke and tangles always get caught in my mass of curls. It doesn't matter if I wear it up, or wrap it, it always stinks and hurts like a bitch to brush.

The sky is grey this morning. Not the melted plastic grey of a smoke-filled sky, but the light, distant grey of fog. That means I can wear my hair down today. I don't have to worry about the ends shriveling, or catching on fire.

The patio doors are cold against my forehead. I open them up, letting out the dogs, who yip and bite playfully at each other’s heels, and letting in the crisp, fresh air.

I leave the door cracked and go into the kitchen. Mom finally came home around 3 last night. I woke up when she got back but when I heard her outside of my door I pretended to be asleep. She kissed my forehead and left something that crinkled next to my bed. It was a pharmacy bag with my refill. She must’ve gotten trapped there when the shelter in place order was initiated. I wonder why we didn’t get locked down at school.

The coffee things are already washed and laid out, so all I have to do is grind the beans and boil the water and combine the two. It’s easy. It’s the least I can do for her.

The house has dealt with my gross clothes from the day before. They’ve been scrubbed and laundered and loaded at the bottom of my laundry basket. Sometimes mom tells me about when I was a baby and she had to take me to the laundromat with her. I don’t even know if laundromats exist anymore, I can’t imagine it. I don’t even know how the machine here works.

When it’s time for me to leave mom’s still not up, so I guess I really do have to walk this time. I keep checking to see if my new inhaler’s in my pocket and it is. She got a new mask for me too, with bright green filters. I’ll look like a dork but, like, should I care? I shouldn’t. I put it on and it feels okay, a little tight, but I can breathe through it. I can’t smell anything which is weird. A good thing, but weird. There isn’t a fire today, at least not on the schedule, but I put the mask in my backpack anyway.

Outside the fog is starting to burn away and I can tell it’s going to be hot. Which is great since I chose to wear all black, multiple layers of black. I love sweating like some kind of sweating animal before homeroom. Really sets the mood for the day.

I’m making my angry way to the sidewalk when a massive, charcoal tinted truck pulls up. Facing the wrong way on our one way street. The window rolls down and I’m caught by eyes like burning coals.

“Miss me, Bruiser?”

#

The ride to school is weird. I press myself as far away from him as I can. I think he notices, but he doesn’t say anything. He just smiles.

I don’t know why I got in. I could’ve walked today. I did it yesterday. One and a half times. It’s kind of stuffy so I try opening a window. The switch doesn’t work.

“Hey, could we open the windows a little?”

“Hmm? Oh, sure.” He does something at his side and the window slides down half an inch.

“Uh, thanks.”

“Got any plans for the day, B?”’

Plans? “Just going to school. How about you?”

“Same, same.” At a stop light he looks over at me. We’re about three blocks from school, thank fuck.

“This is great.”

“What is?”

“Being here. With you. I never imagined I’d get you in my car.” He laughs to himself and shakes his head. I move further away.

“Yeah, uh, haha, me neither. It’s crazy.”

The light turns green.

“You know, I’ve wanted to talk to you for a while. Really talk, you know. Not just in class.”

“That’s...cool. Maybe we could hang out sometime.”  Shit shit shit. Fuck being polite, why do I keep forgetting that?

“How about today?”

“Huh?”

“After school. Are you free after school?”

“Um…”

“Awesome, I’ll meet you when classes are over.” He pulls into a parking spot. It’s in the corner of the lot. The farthest away from the school’s doors. I try to open the door myself but there’s no handle. Killian’s got his open, though, and soon he’s around at my side, opening the door. I put my foot down, trying to find a step. He reaches for me.

“It’s okay, I got it. I can get myself down.” Killian puts one hand on my waist, the other holds my elbow.

“I’m happy to help. Trust me.”

When I’m on the ground he doesn’t take his hands off me. He leaves the one on my waist, slides it around until it rests on my lower back. It makes me shudder, like waking up with maggots crawling on your face.

I hear the door shut. "Wait, my ba…" He already has my backpack over his shoulder and he's pushing me along. When we get to the steps I hear a huge crack from somewhere far away. Killian's thumb rubs circles on my spine, and he presses his nose to my hair. I shouldn’t have washed it.

"It's just a car backfiring. Don't worry. It's a good day."

We get to my locker and I fumble with the combination. Most people are in class, but there are still some kids hanging out in the halls. It feels like it's been a while since I've seen peoples’ faces. It's kind of weird. I wish I had worn my mask, I'm so used to making expressions and mouthing things no one can see. And I've been lazy with my sideburns and other facial hair, I don’t even think about it anymore. PCOS sucks.*

I stop myself from touching my face, I don't want to call anything out. Killian must have the eyes of a hawk, or an eagle. Some kind of bird of prey. Or a mantis shrimp. Whatever, this dude must see my hand flinch or that my face is weird because he's pushing back my hair and lips press against my neck. He laughs into my skin.

"Don't worry, you look great. See you later, B." Then he walks off. He keeps looking back at me, though, looking at me looking like a dumbass with my hand on my neck.

The place he kissed burns.

I feel like throwing up.

#

He’s waiting for me when I get out of bio.

“Wanna eat lunch together?”

Just say no.

“My treat?”

He’s already ushering me from the door, his hand finding the same dip in my back.

“Learn anything interesting in class?”

“Uh, mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell?”

“Ha, good one, B. Classic. But we learned that in middle school, remember?”

Of course I remember. I remember being surrounded by a group of other girls. The sound of my fist connecting with their leader’s face. I don’t remember her name, she was just some stupid 8th grader. But I remember the feeling of skin grinding against bone, the purple blossom of her eye the next day.

I enter the cafeteria in a daze. I don’t even argue when he picks things for me, I’m too out of it to eat anyway. The cavernous room is practically empty today, everyone’s outside or gone off campus. He leads me to a vacant corner. I’m beginning to see a pattern here.

I look at what he’s gotten me. Vegan chili dog, real sugar grapefruit soda, sweet potato fries and huckleberry ketchup. My favorites. I’ve only seen huckleberry ketchup when visiting my grandma up north.

“I didn’t know they had this kind of food here.”

“They don’t. I have mine delivered. The staff just heats it up for me.”

Killian’s got a steak on his plate, blackened to a crisp on the outside. He cuts into it and a watery, oily liquid oozes out, flecked with charred bits and streaked with red.

“Does it bother you?” He’s watching me again. Watching my reaction.

“No. Animals eat each other. We’re animals.” I use a fork to cut the end off my tofu dog.

“Don’t you think humans have some obligation to lesser creatures? Being that we’re more advanced, having a more developed brain?”

“I wouldn’t say we’re more ‘advanced’,” Killian raises his eyebrows, grinning like a fool. I keep going. “Or that other animals are ‘lesser’. Corvids can do math. Dolphins give each other names.”

“Dolphins are assholes. I only get the dolphin-unsafe tuna.”

I snort. “Maybe only the asshole animals do names, I don’t know. Anyway, I’m not really vegan.” I shove the beans and fake meat and gluten-free bread into my mouth, and keep talking with my mouth full. Maybe that’ll gross him out, turn him off. “I just have a lot of food sensitivities.” I swallow, almost choking. “Not real allergies, but I still get kind of sick.”

He starts eating too, cutting out neat cubes. When he chews it looks like he’s having a transcendental experience. It’s such a raw, unfiltered expression  that witnessing it makes me feel like a pervert. I stab at my fries.

When I finish I pretend to be interested in what’s happening in the rest of the cafeteria (nothing). I give in and just look at him. I don’t think he minds because when I meet his eyes they suck me in like a black hole, pulling me inextricably past the blazing event horizon.

I snap out of it when he cracks the bone and starts eating the marrow.

That does actually gross me out. “Is that even good?”

“Yeah, it’s really flavorful. Almondy. Kind of buttery. Do you want to try it?” He gets some on the tip of his knife and holds it out to me.

Try everything once. That’s my motto that I’ve never followed up until this point in my life. He grips the bottom of my chair and in one motion pulls me closer to him, which startles the shit out of me.

Killian tucks a stray curl behind my ear, trails his fingers down my cheek, puts one under my chin, tilts my head up. And the knife gets closer.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m fucked in the head. I must be, I’m gaping like a fish.

“Come on, I promise you’ll like it, Bruiser.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Yesica.”

My lips start to close around the serrated tip of the knife.

Then the school’s thermal insulation shields slam down, rattling the tables. The lights go off. The siren on top of the school begins its incomprehensible blare. The emergency lights start flashing.

We stare at each other. We’re so close I can smell the thin layer of steak grease glossing his lips. I watch the red lights flicker in and out of the depths of his eyes.

And I finally have a word for this feeling.

#

Protocol, and a very upset lunch lady, both insist we are supposed to stay where we are. Shelter in place, i.e. the place one is currently located. Killian pushes her aside, like actually throws his arm into her and makes her stumble. He’s gripping my upper arm, pulling me along at his pace. It’s a little too fast, considering he’s at least a foot taller than me, and breathing gets hard.

“Where are we going?” I ask between breaths

“Shit, sorry B.” He slows down and drapes an arm across my shoulders. “I know a way out, but we need to hurry. I don’t want to get stuck here overnight.” Honestly? Me neither. But it’s probably safer than what he has in mind. Safer than him, period.

“How? The school’s locked up.”

“Using this.” He pulls out a faculty pass.

“Again, how?”

He takes me to a side entrance. The door lock scans the pass, the insulating shield retracts. He bends to look out the window, blocking me from the view. I can see the orange glow on his face.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen. B, you have your inhaler, right?”

“Yeah?”

“Use it. We have to run through that to get to the truck.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

He turns around and grabs my shoulders. My rabbit heart slams out of control.

“Yes, I am. Use. Your. Inhaler.”

Somehow I get it out of my pocket, get the cap off without dropping it. Depress the canister. Inhale. Hold, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...I start coughing before I can get to 10. I’m supposed to wait a minute between doses but I take another hit right away. I make it to 9.

“If you have a mask, put it on. When I see a break in the fire I’m going for it.” I pull my new one out of my backpack. The straps go around my neck and at the crown of my head, crushing my curls but I don’t have time to worry about stupid shit like that. Killian’s looking out the window but glances back at me and smiles, softening his hard expression.

“You look good like that. Ready?”

He bends down, grabs me under the butt, and hefts me over his shoulder. I twist my hands in his shirt and it rides up, exposing the red elastic band of his boxers. I hear him kick the door open and he starts running. This can’t be good for his back. Each step drives his shoulder into the spot just under my sternum.

It fucking sucks.

So does the inferno raging around us. I can’t see much except for the ground, thick with ash. The fire is everywhere and it’s roaring, but that’s not quite the right word. It’s an inhalation, and I can hear, I can feel, the air around us being stripped of oxygen.

Killian must do portage because we’re already at his truck and he’s tossing me into the seat. I don’t smell burning hair, which is something to be thankful for because I’m looking out the window and everything, everything is in flames. There is no way we are getting through this. I can feel the truck dipping as the tar in the asphalt starts to liquefy.

Killian gets in the driver’s seat. Not a single burn on him, not even a singed eyelash. He winks at me and starts the car.

“Are you seriously thinking about driving through this? There is no way, we’ll get cooked in this thing. We should have stayed at school.”

He has the nerve to check his mirrors, put an arm behind my seat, and start backing up.

“Killian!”

“I haven’t heard you use my name since we were 12.”

“Who cares! We are about to die! Are you not seeing this? The fucking road is melting.”

At the street he looks both ways, making sure he doesn’t crash into some fire I guess, and makes a right.

“Chill, B. Anywhere in particular you want to go? I’d say my house but my parents are probably home.”

I’d like to go to my home but we’d probably explode before getting there. “I don’t know, anywhere that’s safe?”

“I got you.” He stops at an unpowered stop light. Flames lick at the street signs, hot enough that the metal poles are slumped over, lights swinging from them. Killian touches the center console. A labeled topographic map pops up, splotched with orange. That must be the active fires. I can see the edges shifting, but how is that possible? And look, there’s a little black truck that shows us careening through the flames. How cute. Killian moves the map around with two fingers until he finds an area out of the orange zones.

“Is that..?”

“Burnell Hill.”

"But it always burns."

"It always burns first."

"So?"

"So the fire won't go back there. No fuel for it."

"Except us."

"Don't worry, B,” he puts a hand on my knee and squeezes. “You're safe with me."

#

I have no choice but to trust him.

 Let me rephrase that.

I have no choice but to do what he says.

After a few blocks I close my eyes to prevent further retinal damage.

“Do you mind if I put some music on?”

“I’m not sleeping, I’m just closing my eyes because sustained exposure to bright light is bad for you. Especially something like that.” I point at an exposed gas line with a 10 foot blue-white candle fountaining from it.

“I should’ve thought about that, I’m not used to riding with people. Here we go.” He scrolls through some settings on the console and the clear windows turn dark purple. Widespread destruction always looks better through polycarbonate.

'“Do you care what we listen to?”

“No.”

The song starts off fine, dark and meandering. Then the singer screams “fuck you,” and things sort of go downhill from there.

“A little hard edged, don’t you think?”

Killian laughs again. Is he high? “Soundtrack for the apocalypse. It’s my stepdad’s playlist.”

“Oh, is this his car?” I lean forward and play with the glove compartment, not expecting it to open. But it does, and it vomits its contents onto my lap. I find some kind of small book and pick it up. I turn it over. It’s a badge. A bronze flame.

We’re fucked.

“Your dad’s in Conflagration.”

“Stepdad.”

“Your stepdad’s in Conflagration!”

“He’s the county chief.”

“Your stepdad’s the fucking Chief Conflagrationist!”

“Calm down, B, it’s no big deal.”

“No big deal?” I shake the badge in his face. He doesn’t flinch, so I throw it at the shifter. “No big deal? This a fucking felony. We are in a state vehicle. Holy shit, I’m fucked. My life is over. What college will accept me now?”

“You don’t have to go to college, you can just marry me. I’ll take care of you.”

“Excuse me?”

“And I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it. My stepdad, he’s...incapacitated.”

We’re going uphill now, up a narrow and windy road that he’s not even looking at because he’s staring at me again.

“What does that mean?”

“Which part?”

“How is he incapacitated!”

I’m thrown back into my seat as he pulls up the handbrake and we slide around a hairpin turn.

“Why do you know how to do that!”

“What I’m hearing is you’re curious about me.”

#

Killian evades my questions and terrifies me with his driving all the way to the top of the hill. There’s a few parking spots, centered around a squat, beige building streaked black from flames. A radio tower lay dying on the roof, its delicate array crumpled and smoking. Killian executes a three point of Euclidean perfection turn so we are facing the valley our town is in. It looks like a fire pit, pumping out smoke, burning itself out.

I take out my phone. No notifications.

“I want to ask you something, B.”

I’ve never seen the full extent of the devastation, just the parts that affect me. The fires have happened for so long, so frequently, most people don’t even notice the damage. Self-adhering glass, self-repairing concrete; adaptive technology is everywhere.. Mom sometimes washes dishes in the sink instead of just leaving them for the house. She isn’t used to it. She didn’t grow up like this.

There is an obvious border between neighborhoods that can afford the domotics I take for granted and those that have been obliterated. The latter mar the town like tumors. It’s too visceral, so I look at the slightly less horrible sight of Killian.

 “Tell me about your stepdad.”

“Ugh.” He throws himself back in his seat, shaking the truck. “Fine. We don’t get along.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Because he’s some strange guy living in my house.”

“When did your mom marry him?”

“Ten years ago. Are we done yet? Is it my turn to ask questions?”

“No.” This is the only time I’ve felt like I had any control over the situation. I look away from him, try to find my house somewhere among the wreckage. The wind is blowing the smoke off, but it’s still thick in places. The fire is still going along the edge of my neighborhood, but I see a path to my house is opening up. Killian picks the badge up from where it landed between us. He traces the bronze flame.

“I don’t like his job.”

“Why not?” I see ads for Conflagration on almost every video I watch, though I’m not sure exactly what they’re selling. “They provide a vital—”

“A vital service to the community, I know. I hear that a lot. Controlled burns are bullshit. I mean, does this look under control to you?” He waves an arm and his disgust implicates the entire valley.

“It could be worse. We have total containment, almost no casualties. In places with firefighters—”

“At what cost, B? How much do you think it costs to operate domotics? Who does that money go to? The city leases utilities and charges them to homeowners. And Conflagration charges on top of that.”

“What do you mean? I thought that was a public service.”

“Ha, no. It’s classified as a non-profit, which means all the profits they get for charging homeowners for service goes toward salaries for people like my stepfather. And look what happens when you can’t pay.” He points to the burned out neighborhoods, his voices getting louder. “That’s another price of ‘control burns’. The only control they have is starting them and watching them run rampant. They don’t even publish burn schedules anymore, the ones we have are at least three years out of date.”

I didn’t know that. That seems like something I should know.

“But other places do it too.”

“Yeah, once a year. Maybe. Not monthly. Not weekly. It’s insane. Look at this.” Killian opens an app on the truck’s center console. When it prompts for the pin he quickly taps it in and a monthly calendar opens. “I’ve seen him do this a bunch of times before, I have all his passwords memorized. Check this out, all of these,” he says, touching a date cell with a small “x” in the corner, “are the scheduled burns. And today, you can see there isn’t an official burn scheduled.”

“So it was naturally occurring? Someone forgot to update the schedule?” I don’t know why I’m giving his stepdad the benefit of the doubt. It’d be easier to just go along with what he’s saying.

“You’re not stupid, so don’t act like it. It’s the end of the month, and I bet they ran over budget. Another fire, another charge on your mom’s monthly bill.”

“I don’t believe it.” The truck cab is stuffy. A drop of sweat rolls along Killian’s jawline. I want to claw out of my skin. “It’s kind of warm in here.” He gives me a despairing look, then starts the truck. Cooler air pumps out of the vents, and I tilt one toward me.

“Which part don’t you believe?”

“All of it. I mean, what you’re saying is the city is manufacturing disaster at a profit. There have to be less convoluted ways to generate revenue.”

“Like what? Taxes? We have one of the lowest property taxes in the country. The entire country, B. First time homeowners get additional tax breaks. This is one of the fast growing counties in the state because it’s so cheap to build here. The city subsidizes everything, especially if you lease components for domotics, which the city purchases wholesale.”

“And what’s the problem with that?”

“Are you serious? What about the people who can’t afford it and lose their homes? What about people like you with medical issues? What about people who can’t afford to move, living paycheck to paycheck and justifying it because they have access to higher tech than the people in the next town, and all the smoke isn’t really that bad, is it? Come on, I don’t believe you haven’t thought about it at all. How weird it is that everyone just accepts this as the status quo.”

“I figured I’d get away from it when I leave for college.” I say it like I’m begging for forgiveness. I feel my face heat with shame.

“Oh, right, B,” he says, glaring at me. “Because running away solves problems. Especially for the people you’re leaving behind.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“Well, fuck you.”

“I wasn’t even talking about you!”

“Whatever.” I crossed my arms at some point, and now they were tight enough to bruise my ribs. “I think the street to my house is clear. Do you mind driving me home, or should I just roll down this hill?”

Killian sits up and grips the steering wheel. “Fine. See, this is why I didn’t want to talk about him.” His voice shifts up a few pitches. “It’s not that bad, it’s great here! It’s not like other places where they have to, gasp, relocate, or rebuild. It’s not that expensive.” He turns the truck around and starts downhill. They really should put guardrails up here. I don’t want to agitate him while he’s speeding around curves, so I wait until we’re at the bottom.

“So, what did you mean when you said he was incapacitated.”

“I wish you cared this much about me,” he mumbles. I shudder, then place my hand on his shoulder.

“Please? I’m curious.” I hate the sound of my voice.

He allows himself to be sloppily manipulated. “He has carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“Holy shit, is he going to be okay?”

“Yeah, he’s fine. It’s a work hazard. It’s an everyone-who-lives-in-this-town hazard. He just needs to be a little more careful with his gear.” He smiles. “You know, make sure none of the filters are damaged.”

I take a moment to let my bile settle down, give his shoulder a lame little pat, then place my hand back in my lap. I try to discreetly wipe my palm off on my thigh.

As we drive through town, I let myself notice how dead it is.

The valley is unified by its lifelessness. Traffic occurs in discrete bursts. There are few animals, mostly insects. No squirrels, or rabbits, or raccoons, or stray cats. No birds. They can regrow the plants, but the animals are too complex.

We see no other cars, no sign of people through the gently falling ash.

Killian pulls up to my house. My mom’s car isn’t in the driveway, so she much be stuck at work, or somewhere getting supplies for her stupid daughter. Killian leans over to unbuckle me. I have proven myself incapable of taking care of even the most basic things. His face is too close.

“Before I let you go, I want to ask you something.”

“I should probably get inside, my mom…”

“I know I gave you a hard time in middle school. I know you got jumped because of me. It wasn’t like that, though. It wasn’t a joke. I was serious. I am serious.”

I turn away, close my eyes. “Look, I’m not really…”

“Are you hearing me?”

“What do you want from me?” I snap, braver than I feel, meeting his eyes. “You and your friends talk shit about me, you bother me in class, now you’re trying to act all nice to me? What is this?”

“Talk shit? No, I...what? Look. I’m sorry, okay? For anything I did that hurt you.” He’s leaning towards me. He starts to take my hand. I try to pull away. He’s too strong.

“Don’t...” He threads our fingers together. His hand is cool, soft, more structured than mine. “Get off…” The door behind blocks my retreat. His other hand caresses my cheek, tangles in my hair, pulls me closer.

“I really like you, Yesica. Will you go out with me?”

#

He picks me up in the morning. We eat lunch together. He drives me home.

By the second week of this routine, he starts trailing me between classes, to my locker. I expect people to talk about it, but they don’t. No one cares.

I try to confront him. Why are you following me? is what I want to ask, but what comes out is, “Why do you even like me?”

“You’re cute.”

“Is that it?”

“Is there a problem with thinking you’re cute?”

“Yes. What about my personality?”

“You’re kind of an asshole, B.”

“Sorry.” Not really.

“Don’t be, it’s cute.”

After a moment he asks, “What about me?”

“What about you?”

“Why do you like me?”

“I don’t. I put up with you.”

He snorts. “Whatever. Why have you ‘put up with me’ since sixth grade?”

Because I’m pathetic. Because I want to be wanted.

It doesn’t matter what I say. Any reaction is an affirmation. So I say nothing.

The days fall into a pattern. An ugly one, a lumpy jacquard or some tacky chintz. One week passes without a fire, then another. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

Killian takes me out of town on the weekends, in his stepdad’s truck. My mom says nothing. I’m such a nonpresence at home she doesn’t notice when I’m gone, or she doesn’t care, or she thinks I’m mature enough to be left to my own devices and that makes me feel bad in a different way. It makes me reckless.

The beach is just a few miles away. I haven’t been since I was a baby, the memories I have of it are impressionistic. No one goes on day trips here. By the time you get back the town might be on lockdown, and then you're forced to sleep in your car or find an overpriced motel for the night.

I notice the things I never knew were missing, bird song and fresh air. As we go farther away, the world becomes prismatic. The colors are more saturated out here, divested of the dull tones of beige and gray that cloak our town. When we stop for snacks at a gas station, the girl behind the counter gives me a weird look. I’ve left my mask on, out of habit. I watch fat veggie and kosher dogs roll together, mingling their respective greases. One is plucked out for me. I take it outside to eat. Killian is watching, always watching. When I’m finished, the sweetness of relish coating my tongue, we leave the gasoline and exhaust behind. We drive past hills with the faint fuzz of new growth, still recovering from last season’s fire. We blunder through firebreaks that line the countryside. I can breathe.

I hate it.#

Our reprieve ends with a persistent wail emanating from my phone. It wakes me up with a throbbing headache and no sense of time. I slap at it until it turns off.

I stumble out of bed to my windows. I pull back my blackout curtains and recoil from the flames clinging to my window, a sheet of napalm that rains in reverse. The dogs are scratching at my door. When I open it I see they are laying down, panting and whining at me. The house is oppressively hot, thermoregulation is down. I step over them. They rise slowly and pad after me into the kitchen, to their empty water bowls. I refill the bowls. The tap water is warm but at least it’s still on. I add melting ice cubes from the freezer. The dogs lap at the water with languid tongues. Mom’s bedroom door is closed. I go back to my room, find my phone, check the time. Just past 3 AM. I have a text from him.

I check on mom first. I knock on her door, softly call for her. There’s no reply, so I open it, just to see if she’s okay. Her room stinks of old cigarettes. My headache turns up a notch. She’s asleep. I watch the rise and fall of her comforter, just in case. I twist the door handle, slowly and silently release the latch.

Back in the kitchen, the dogs are stretched out on the tiles. I check the text. It’s from 15 minutes ago.

Want to come over to my house?

I haven’t disabled read receipts. Another text.

I’m outside.

The period is ominous. I put on outside clothes. In the dark. I grab anything, it doesn’t matter. Dress, boots, mask. I think about waking mom up, telling her where I’m going. I feel like I haven’t talked to her in days. Maybe it’s better for her to sleep through this. The dogs watch me pass with lambent, mournful eyes.

The house tries to stop me. The front door beeps a warning and remains locked. I enter the override code. Mom set it as my birthday. It took me a pathetically long time to figure that out. 

I open the door and he’s standing right there. His eyes say everything. His attention envelopes me like smog over a city, blotting out my lights. Ash is already drifting down, catching in my hair. It’s avoiding Killian again. I want to ask him why it does that, but ignorance makes me vulnerable. And the answer might make me complicit in another felony.

Once we’re in his truck he says, “It’s a three day weekend. I want to spend it with you.” My bronchioles shrivel and die.

#

His house stands alone on a sere hill, just outside of town. A brutal grey block, grown cubic like pyrite from the sediment.

Inside is worse, an austerity that suppresses any attempt at ornamentation.

“Where are you parents?”
“Out of town for the weekend.” He takes my hand to lead me through the living room, across the poured concrete floor. Spare, colorless furniture is pushed against the walls lining the cavity.

“Sorry about the house. It’s one of the domotics prototypes.”

“I like it. It’s very minimalist.”

“No you don’t. I’ve seen your room. It’s a mess.”

“Yeah, I wish you hadn’t.”

He pulls me into a kitchen born of chrome and slate. There is nothing on the counters. “I wanted to see it. It told me so much more about you. Thirsty?” I shake my head.

“Come on. You showed me yours, so I’ll show you mine.”

The house closes around us like a fist. We pass empty rooms, airy for the lack of atmosphere. Track lighting is a gossamer lattice far overhead, washing us out. One door leads to a mudroom with washer and dryer hookups hanging like severed arteries. Killian pulls me through and out to a backyard made of the same crisp brown grass that surrounds the house. In it stands a shed, a smaller version of the house.

“Do you live here alone?”

“Most of the Conflagrationists commute,” is all the answer I get.

We reach the shed, and with a tap Killian reveals a recessed panel. He glides his finger across the screen in a complex pattern. The door hisses and slides into the wall, releasing a held breath of cold air. He steps in, leaving me behind with this silent temptation.

I’m alone with a strange and frightening boy in an isolated location.

I follow him inside.

#

“What is this?”

This room is so intimately him it makes me embarrassed. Against one wall is a twin bed lumped with a forest green comforter. Shoes and clothes are piled at the foot. Stacks of books, comics, an unzipped backpack, cleats, band posters hung on the deep blue walls. Everything is close and warm. It smells like him, feels like an embrace.

The opposite wall is occluded by a behemoth.

A line of racks reach the ceiling. Inside each there are black boxes with cables running out of them, bundled and tied neatly to the side. A column of hundreds of cables runs up the adjacent wall. Blue LEDs glow steadily at me from all directions. A thousand devices click and hum. A laptop is mounted on a sliding tray pulled out from a rack, connected to this construct.

“This is the heart of our town, B.” I step back from it, confused. “This is the server for the domotics. All the smart structures run through here. All the buildings, roads, synthetic plants.” His voice rises as he ticks things off on his hands. “We have switches for the power grid, gas grid, sewage. Even most of the cars. The older ones aren’t connected yet.” He smiles. “And probably never will be after this weekend.”

“What?”

“Sit down, I’ll show you.”

He places his hands on my shoulders. Squeezes, pushes me to his bed. I sit down on the edge, pull my hem over my knees.

“I’m ending it.” He grabs a bundle of cables and rips them out. Some are screwed or clipped in, and the hard drives are yanked out of the rack, crashing into each other.

“Holy shit!” I scramble back on his bed, my breaths shallow and quick. My lungs are filled with acid. I watch Killian dismantle the server, a vicious display of restless teenage strength. LEDs flicker and die. The drives still connected spin madly.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m making it,” he says, breathing heavily, tearing more cables out, “so the town can’t rebuild itself.”

“But the fire! My mom!” I left her asleep. I thought she was safe.

“I sent an evacuation push notification to everyone.” He walks towards me, grabs my ankles, pulls me so I’m flat on my back. He crawls on top of me. His rage has set him ablaze. His hair is wild, his eyes terribly alive.

“I started it.”

“What?” My voice is a whisper, it hurts so much to speak. Too late, I’ve forgotten my inhaler again.

“The fire. I started it. And the last one, and the one before that. Some birds carry burning sticks from wildfires to set other parts of the forest on fire. To flush game out.” A smile cuts across his face. “I wanted to flush you out.”

Killian laughs softly as I gasp for air. He wraps one of my curls around his fingers.

“And now look at you.”

He presses his forehead against mine.

“You can’t even breathe without me.”

  • PCOS – Polycystic ovary syndrome. A hormonal disorder of women of reproductive age. May cause excess androgen (male hormone) levels.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Rubella Dithers was a teenager, but they eventually got over it

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