Trigger Warning: Fire and burns.
Big Mike rolled over in bed pulling the last corner of the fitted sheet from the stained and sagging mattress. Change had spilled from his pockets and two dimes clung to his sweating back like strange silver ticks. He dreamed of bleating sheep and the swelling sweetness of freshly cut hay. The sheep faded and the sound became an air raid drill siren; high-pitched and persistent like the ache in his bladder.
To sleep in his own bed was a luxury. Ball Memorial Behavioral Health Inpatient Facility had never felt like home. Two years of his life pissed away smoking cigarettes and playing euchre. He’d never been locked up that long.
And for what? Homicidal ideation my ass!
His own God damn mother had called the sheriff on him! She’d told the sheriff he’d threatened to kill her over the last beer in the house. It was a God damn humiliating lie and it hurt his heart to think about. He didn’t understand why she hadn’t just asked him to move out. This troubled him even more than the swelling in his bladder and the piercing shriek of the alarm clock.
The meds made him dopey which made it more difficult to do calculus or talk to God. With his mind anesthetized by anti-psychotics his thoughts became sloppy and slurred like a clumsy tongue shot full of Novocain. The voices were his friends and he had been lonely without them.
He made up his mind to wake up and swim to the surface. He opened his sleep bleary eyes, tried to move and could not. He hated when his mind awoke moments before his body was ready to respond. It always made him think he’d been roofied or become a quadriplegic in his sleep.
He lurched forward to sit up. The coins fell from the pale clear skin of his back to the beer sodden carpet with a sad little tinkle plop. His lungs roared to life and his respiratory system sung the phlegmy rattle of emphysema. He gagged and cut a long loud long fart like a trombone. The fart had felt hot and moist and he wondered for a moment if he hadn’t shit his pants a little. He supposed he’d soon find out.
He needed coffee. Coffee and a smoke. The bedroom had no windows and it was hotter than usual even for an Indian summer in Springport County, Indiana. He patted at the carpet in search of his cut offs. His nicotine stained fingers found the flattened soft-pack of Newports and he fished out a crumpled smoke. He felt for a match and lit the cigarette in a smooth well practiced gesture. The smoke drifted into his small blue eyes. He squinted through the methylated haze as he took the first cool drag of the afternoon. It ought to be after five now. He’d napped longer than he’d planned and the quality of light under the door to the sitting room had changed. The bedroom had been an office and the previous occupant had painted the glass pane glossy white. It reminded him of an old timey detective agency. The orange red hue of the setting sun painted the milky glass and he sighed because it was beautiful. The setting sun made him think of his daughter. Her wedding would be soon.
Thank the good Lord I’m out in time for that.
“Isn’t your father going to give you away, Angelina?”
“Who? That old man? Naw, he’s summering on the funny farm.”
Now THAT would be embarrassing.
He smelled something thick and sweet like barbeque and wondered if the Wilson’s were having a cookout or if they were just burning trash. He hoped it was a cookout. The cabbages would be up by now and Susan Wilson made some mean sauerkraut.
I otta burn my trash too.
He began to make a list in his head:
Check in with sponsor
Go down to the disability office
Mail letters to Angelica and Mom
Go Down To Ball State Re: Auditing Analytic Number Theory
All this seemed overwhelming. Still he was glad to be out. Glad to be free. His yellowed fingers fumbled and found the brass doorknob. It was warm. Strange. He thought that it meant something; at one time or another this information would have meant something. A thought flickered in his brain like a frog’s tongue springing forward to catch a passing insect. The frog missed.
“We’re not firing on all cylinders here buddy boy.” said the voice belonged to Orville King.
He opened the door and was knocked flat on his back by a gust of explosive heat.
The wind had been knocked from his chest and he gasped and choked on the thick clouds of black smoke. Each breath brought new searing pain like razors and glass and unbearable heat. He screamed and saw the ghosts of a thousand devilish horses stampeding through his small apartment. The horses manes and tails flicked setting everything in their wake ablaze including every one of Big Mike’s cells which cried out in white hot pain. For a moment he pried open his swollen eyes to see flames licking at his pale blue polo shirt. His vision went red and was gone. He writhed on the stained grey carpet as he patted desperately at flames he could no longer see.
He tore at the powder blue polo shirt and found that it disintegrated in his hands. He screamed as he tugged at his waist. The polyester fibers had fused with his skin. He roared in pain and his mind was alive with a buzz of voices like angry bees. The voices clamored over one another to be heard. Shouting orders. A child cried. Everyone wanted out.
“WE HAVE TO GET OUT!”
“GET OUT, MIKEY!”
“GET OUT, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE GET OUT!”
Every nerve ending on his body from just above his dick screamed in pain. He saw a white hot flash and knew that this is what it felt like to be dying. To die and to wake up in hell.
“Get up Mikey! Get the hell out of dodge!” cried his ex-wife, Juana.
He felt something scalding and wet on his feet. The rubber soles of his tenni’s had melted. The pain was unbearable. His mind hummed and whirled in every direction and he tried to quiet it. He tried to listen for the voice of God. His voice usually boomed over the others but in this moment God, it seemed, was absent.
He felt around the carpet in search of the door to the screened-in porch. Each movement brought fresh pain. A wave of nausea overcame him and he vomited a foamy puddle of warm beer, Pop-Tarts and his AM meds. Crawling on the carpet forced him to put weight on his blistered palms. He stumbled like a sick dog. His hands felt like swollen lobsters claws. He reached out and felt something like a door frame. The heat told him it was the door to the sitting room.
“BIG MIKE! CLOSE THE DOOR! THE BABY WILL GET OUT!” shouted his exwife.
“NO!” Jauna corrected herself.
“THE FIRE WILL GET IN!”
He reached a reddened lobster claw forward and pulled the brass handle toward him. He hoped that the flames had not yet found their way into his tiny bedroom.
He only remembered the sound of the chopper. And then the bustling sound of nurses and the taste and feel of steryl corrugated pipes pushing his throat open. Then crying. And his daughters voice cooing soft angel sounds he did not understand.
Sometimes he heard muffled roars, those came when his body (which still seemed to exist somewhere in the earthly world) became cold and he shivered. There was light there and voices he did not recognize. Sometimes he felt a dryness in his throat that he only became aware of when they washed him. Soon he learned the distant ogre’s roars belonged to him.
There was no coming to. No waking up. Only swimming up and down. If he swam toward the light there was pain and the voices of his daughter and the sound of his own muffled cries and those of his mother and sisters. And to swim down, away from the sun was to swim away from pain. To swim down into the cool waters where his burns did not ache was to flirt with death. He was sure of that. There was a place in between where there were few voices. A place where he could talk with his ex-wife and his daughter and his sisters without them crying.
The cool darkness of the oceans floor called to him. There came a time when he could no longer tread water. He stopped swimming and the ocean around him disappeared altogether and for the first time in his life his mind was blissfully quiet.