Combustion – Kai Hudson

Combustion – Kai Hudson

Jaxon has just finished doodling Captain Fiero’s victory pose when the math teacher explodes.

Students scream as Mrs. Richardson flails back from the chalkboard, body suddenly alight. Her arms and legs make a bright windmill as she stumbles across the room, upsetting the fake plastic skeleton and catching the bookcase on fire. Jaxon shoots to his feet without thinking, grabs his jacket, and runs to her just as she collapses across Hannah’s desk.

He’s too late. Jaxon stands there staring as Mrs. Richardson’s body jerks and twitches, the fire finishing its meal. The room fills with the stink of burnt hair and cooking flesh.

There’s no time to mourn. With a high-pitched wail, Robyn catches fire across the room. Adrian rears back from her and turns to run—he lights before he gets two steps away. Order collapses. Children shriek and cry and dash for the exits, while the fire leaps from one tiny body to the next, Jaxon darting after it with his jacket flapping in futility. Smoke burns his eyes and clogs his throat, everywhere ash and heat and flame. Finally, he stumbles out of the classroom alone, coughing and retching as he scrubs flecks of classmates from his eyes.

Around him, the world burns.

He presses the jacket to his mouth and nose, staggers through thick smoke and lashing flames. A couple times he hears something like screams coming from a nearby room, but when he turns to run in—he’ll save them, Captain Fiero would—all he sees is fire. Greedy orange tongues that speak in hisses and pops: Come sit with us. Come here where it is warm.

The school’s front doorknob sears his palm. Jaxon yells and shoves forward, tumbling down the steps and into soft dirt.

He lies there and breathes, sucking in deep lungfuls of air that tingle and scratch on their way down. He keeps at it even though it hurts, because that’s what Captain Fiero would do. Captain Fiero would breathe, and slowly push himself up to sitting, and go out to save the world.

When he sits up, the city is on fire.

Flames spew through broken-glass storefronts. Cars drift aimlessly into each other, their drivers on fire. Two blocks down, the old church lights the afternoon, huge flaming pillars punching out windows to grasp for the sky. Everywhere fire, everywhere death. What—what is going on?

A high-pitched scream, and he turns. A woman runs down the sidewalk, arms flailing. Smoke pours from her clothes and her whole head is aflame, a meteor with legs. She falls to the ground just as Jaxon reaches her and throws his jacket over her head, holding his breath to keep the smoke out as her body seizes and trembles beneath his. After a second he remembers to hit the jacket with his palms like the people do on TV, and the lady gives one last heave before going still. The parts of her arms and legs that aren’t charred and crusting around bone are pale and scattered with freckles like only white folks have.

He holds the jacket down for a while longer, just in case the fire comes back. But though his palm still smarts from the hot doorknob, the heat seeping up through the thin cloth doesn’t feel new. Jaxon takes a deep breath and lifts the jacket.

The fabric peels up with chunks of scalp, skull, and sooty hair stuck to it. Beneath, the lady’s brain glistens grey and dead in the bright sunlight, like a new flavor of Jell-O Nana might serve for dessert.

Sickness punches up his throat. Jaxon turns and spews his lunch all over the asphalt. His hands shake as he drops the jacket.

Which is when something roars.

He looks up to see a monster approaching in the shape of a white van, flames shooting out its grill and from beneath the hood. It bears down on him, only feet away, and Jaxon stares. He wants to run but can’t. He can only think stupidly, This is gonna hurt.

Then something hits him from the side. The world flips and he finds himself staring up at clear blue sky.

Strange, he thinks, that the smoke from a thousand burning souls can waft up into that great, endless unknown and simply disappear.

The man who saved him looks nothing like Captain Fiero. He doesn’t wear a bright red cape with yellow flames at the bottom, or surf through the air on a fireball he makes from his hands. Arthur—”Call me Artie, son”—wears a shirt with sweat stains at the armpits, and thick jeans that look like they’ve been washed about a thousand times, the blue all sucked out of them.

He was in the Navy before, something called a core-man. Artie says that means he looked after people when they went out to sea or into the desert and got shot by the enemy. Jaxon wants to ask if Artie ever met Donte, if maybe he’d known Jaxon’s brother before he got blown up in Iraq and came home in a flag-draped box. He can never seem to form the question, though. Donte’s death is its own little hurt, like even now a part of Jaxon’s heart is continuously burning sharp and acrid.

It’s not the only thing still burning. Down below the mountain, the city continues to smolder, thin columns of smoke and ash drifting up from the charred husks of buildings. Two weeks have passed since everything went up in flames. The radio stations squawk nonstop, experts and analysts and counter-experts and counter-analysts all picking and pulling and voicing their theories, but to Jaxon their panicked conversations sound like water circling a clogged drain: motion without progress. They keep saying what a big tragedy this is and how everyone needs to work together to do something about it. Underneath it, though, Jaxon only hears fear. Fear, and relief that it didn’t happen to them.

There are conflicting reports about the spread of the destruction. Some stations describe whole countries consumed by fire, reduced to nothing but a wasteland of embers and ash like in the videogames Donte used to play. Others claim it’s just a few cities here and there, Jaxon’s included. No matter what the reports say, though, everyone agrees on two things. One: the fire keeps spreading, fast and unpredictable, a few people suddenly lighting up in the middle of the day for no reason and subsequently taking an entire city down with them. And two: no one knows why.

They could probably figure out that second one if everyone just came together, pooled their resources and ideas to try to find a solution to this. Isn’t that what they did with the Ebola outbreak, and that MRSA thing a little later? But the fire is different, and Jaxon thinks he knows why. It’s happening too fast and too close. It’s not a bunch of poor dark-skinned people in a faraway country getting burnt up first, so folks can’t just sit back and donate money with their credit cards and put those little stamps of solidarity on the corners of their profile pics on social media. No, the fire is here, it’s come directly for them and exploded right in their faces. So they’re doing what they do best: lockdown. Instead of Let’s all work on this together, the message is We must protect our own.

“In the wake of this terrible tragedy, we in Chicago would like to announce that we are suspending travel in and out of the city indefinitely,” says the tinny voice over the radio. “Those who attempt illegal entry will be turned away, using force if necessary. Of course, we expect this to be only a temporary safety measure, and our thoughts and prayers are with the residents of those areas that have burned—”

“Yeah, thanks for the support,” Artie grumbles, and flicks the radio off.

A rumble of agreement rolls through the small crowd gathered around the campfire. Jaxon had shied away the first time they laid the rocks down and lit match to dry tinder, but Lawrence laughed and patted him on the shoulder. Don’t you worry, son. We know what we’re doing.

He wasn’t lying. When Artie and Jaxon finally made it up the mountain, covered in dust and soot, with barely half a bottle of water between them, they’d found the campground already occupied by the employees of Fire Station 19; they’d been in the middle of their annual family retreat when the city went up. Lawrence is their leader, a real-life fire captain, which is pretty cool.

Jaxon doesn’t know the others very well yet, even though they’ve been here a while. Everyone’s friendly, but whenever Jaxon looks at them all he sees is his classmates burning up, or Mrs. Richardson, or the lady with her head on fire. Sometimes the thoughts get bad enough to make him sick again, so he tries to stay away from people in general.

The only person he’s comfortable around is Artie. Jaxon doesn’t have anyone else—Donte’s in the ground, and they passed the blackened remains of the church on their way to the mountain, the church where Nana would’ve been in the middle of sorting old clothes and canned food, like she always did when Jaxon was at school. He left a note taped to the burnt wood of the church’s front door just in case, but he’s not so young as to hold out hope.

So here they are two weeks later, sleeping in tents while the city continues to burn down below. They talked about rescue the first few days, but that’s dried up since the radio broadcasts made it clear: they’re on their own. Which, to Jaxon, isn’t actually new. Even before the fire and the worldwide swaths of death, he’d stopped believing in the government a long time ago. Nana probably said it best: The world don’t care about us, and we like it that way. For the white folks in camp, it’s probably a new thing, being abandoned. For people like Jaxon, it’s really, really not.

Around the campfire, the conversation continues. “…igure it out,” Lawrence is saying. “I mean, how does the fire pick who to burn?”

“Maybe it’s not the people, it’s the place,” says one of the paramedics. “Did you hear the broadcast last night, about the fire that just died out in a hospital in Atlanta? It took a couple patients on one floor but that was it. The staff all came running for nothing.”

“My cousin in Afghanistan says the same thing happened at his FOB,” someone else adds. “Couple people went up at chow, everyone jumped on to put ‘em out, and they all should’ve caught fire but none of ‘em did.”

“And then there’s us,” says a firefighter. “Those flaming cars came up the road the first few days, then nothing. No one here caught.”

“Thank God for that.”

“Maybe we were chosen for this, you know? The radio said there might be something special about—”

“Enough of that,” Lawrence snaps. “Ain’t no one here any more special or chosen or pretty-unique-snowflake than anybody else. You think like that and you might as well strike a match to yourself.”

“Amen, brother.”

Jaxon agrees. No one ever deserves to burn: not his classmates, not that lady on the street, not the millions already whose ash they breathe every day. That’s why he didn’t run away, two weeks ago when the fire started in the classroom. Nana didn’t run when those angry men in white hoods tried to burn down the freedom bus she was riding on in ‘61. Donte didn’t run when the bad guys were shooting at him in Iraq. It’s just not in his blood, he supposes.

“You’re thinking about him, aren’t you?” Artie smiles down at him as the conversation around the campfire continues in the background, a soft, comforting buzz. “Your superhero.”

He’s not, but you never tell white folks they’re wrong. Jaxon nods. “Yeah. Captain Fiero.” He’d shown Artie the picture he drew when they first arrived in camp. He’s not sure why, and he feels mostly embarrassed by it now. Captain Fiero seems so childish in the face of what they’ve seen.

“That’s cool.” Artie speaks around the granola bar he’s eating; he always seems to have one sequestered somewhere on his person. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about how his powers work. Usually when you throw fire at fire, it just gets bigger. What makes Captain Fiero different?”

“Um.” A strange mix of warmth and embarrassment gathers in Jaxon’s stomach. He’s pleased; no one’s ever asked about Captain Fiero before, and all the other kids just laughed at his pictures and called him stupid. At the same time, what if he’s wrong? About Captain Fiero’s powers, about the good fire? What if Artie laughs at him too?

But Artie is just looking at him, chewing around an encouraging smile, and the man did save his life, so. “Well. Captain Fiero’s fire isn’t bad, not like the fire that burned everything up in town. His fire is good because it, um, it comes from his heart. It’s made of his wanting to save people.” It’s sounding stupider and stupider by the moment. He ducks his head and mumbles the last few words. “So when his fire touches the bad fire, it puts it out.”

“Oh.” Jaxon’s looking down at his feet so he doesn’t see what kind of face Artie is making, but he doesn’t sound like he’s about to laugh or make sneering jokes. He just sounds curious. “So, back at your school…?”

“I had the good fire,” Jaxon says, still not looking up. “I wanted to be like Captain Fiero, saving everyone, so I tried to put the other kids out because that’s what he would’ve done. I think…I think maybe the bad fire sensed that, and that’s why it skipped me. It didn’t wanna mess with Captain Fiero.”

“I see.” It’s hard to tell from his voice whether Artie actually does or not. He sounds distracted. Jaxon looks up and notices two things at once: one, Artie isn’t watching him anymore, staring instead at the woods somewhere over Jaxon’s shoulder.

Two, all movement in camp has stopped, everybody else staring in the same direction.

Very slowly, Jaxon turns.

The underbrush has birthed a man. Or at least, Jaxon thinks he’s a man. It’s hard to tell through all the smoke.

Because he’s on fire.

Not fire fire, not like what happened in his classroom and then later through the entire city. But it’s starting. The man stares at them with big, helpless eyes. Smoke pours from his clothes and his skin is a deep, angry red, like he spent too much time in the sun. He opens his mouth and croaks, “H-Help,” and the word belches out around a fresh cloud of smoke.

Gasps all around. Several people back away as the man stumbles forward. Jaxon sees the fear in their eyes, the growing panic. A piece of the city, a clump of fiery infection suddenly invading their pristine haven. They should run. Bolt for the woods, hide away, save themselves. Let everyone else burn.

But that’s not what Captain Fiero would do, is it?

“Help,” the man begs again, just as something sparks and the top layer of his salt-and-pepper hair catches fire. Someone wails, and Jaxon can feel it in the air: the buzzing tension, the terror teetering on the brink of crumbling into chaos.

He doesn’t even think about it, shooting to his feet and seizing his jacket. “Stop!”

He’s not sure who he’s talking to, but everyone obeys anyway. The man freezes, and all movement in camp halts. The couple of folks who had been edging toward the woods falter in their steps. All eyes go to him.

Jaxon lifts the jacket and steps toward the burning man. Tiny flames crown his hair and his breaths come high and panicked as he stares at Jaxon, but he doesn’t move.

Son,” Lawrence hisses somewhere in the background, but Jaxon barely hears. He stops in front of the man, and they regard each other for a moment. The man’s eyes are still full of panic, wide and near-crazy with it, and it would be so easy, Jaxon knows, to give in. He can feel it even now, the fear hovering on the edges of his consciousness. The bad fire is here, and it wants him to run.

But it didn’t count on Captain Fiero, who has never said real words or breathed real air, but who lives in Jaxon nevertheless.

He looks up at the man, and it’s surprisingly easy to smile. “I’m gonna put you out now,” he says. Then he does just that: lifts up on his toes, throws his jacket over the man’s smoking head, and pulls.

The man trips and falls to his knees with the momentum. Jaxon rolls with it, both of them tumbling to the dirt. Artie calls his name, but he ignores it as he quickly pats the jacket with his palms, just like he did back in the city two weeks ago. Except this time will be different. This time, he’s not too late.

The man’s body jerks beneath him, just like the lady’s did before, and then goes still. The smell of something charred fills the air. Jaxon stares at the lump beneath his jacket, suddenly unsure. What if he’s wrong? What if he lifts it up, and there’s just more grey brains underneath?

Crunching footsteps, and Artie squats down next to him. His hand lands heavy on Jaxon’s shoulder, but he doesn’t say anything as he pinches a corner of the jacket and slowly lifts it up.

A few wisps of smoke and a pair of bright eyes greet them. The man coughs and shakes his head. Bits of burnt hair drift to the ground with the movement, and his scalp is all blotchy and pink and gross-looking, but he’s alive.

He’s alive.

Noise erupts all through camp. A million conversations get going at once, questions and exclamations and not a few prayers. Artie whistles. “Holy shit,” he says, and before Jaxon can tell him that’s a bad word, he gets a hearty clap to the shoulder. “Why didn’t you run?” Artie asks.

And Jaxon can’t really articulate it, not in the refined, sophisticated way it’ll spread through the world over the next few days. He’s only eight years old, after all, so he doesn’t know fancy words like valor and fortitude. Right now, he only knows to look at Artie and say, “Because that’s what the bad fire wants.”

He sees it the moment Artie understands. His friend stands up and hurries over to the rest of the campers. Jaxon catches only bits and pieces of the conversation that follows, although one thing stands out above all: spread the word. People talk about putting a broadcast out on the radio, of putting an expedition together to head down to the city and tell everyone, tell the world. Start a new sort of sweeping conflagration.

They don’t ask Jaxon to come, and he doesn’t volunteer. He’ll stay here a little while longer. He likes the quiet in these woods.

Something brushes his hand. Jaxon turns and it’s the man he saved, reaching out with long, calloused fingers to wrap them around his own. The patches of skin that were burning before are now starting to blister, and he winces in pain with every movement, but when he squeezes Jaxon’s hand, there is only softness in his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispers.

Jaxon grins. He may not have a long red cape, or be able to make fireballs from his hands. He may not be tall, or handsome, or have lots of money or a big house or a pretty girlfriend, but right now, in his heart, he has the good fire.

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