It was me who set the fire. Everyone knew it, even her. Especially her.
When I heard the sirens I had run. I took a well-known shortcut through the woods to a carnival the next county over. But even miles away I couldn’t escape the screaming. Not of the victims – but of their parents, whose anguished cries had followed me like footprints since I’d started the fire hours earlier.
She found me in the fun house, huddled in the corner of a room fitted wall to wall with distorted mirrors. She was my age, 15 or so, with wild, red hair and clothes that said she had a reputation. She smiled at me and offered her hand. I wordlessly refused it and she joined me on the floor, crossing her legs in a way that suggested she’d forgotten she was wearing a skirt.
“I know what you’ve done.” She said simply.
I didn’t reply. I was just comforted to not be alone anymore.
“Everyone knows,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and inching her skirt up to scratch her knee. “Even the police know. They’re looking for you.”
A loud, painful sob erupted from my chest. “Go away,” I choked. But I didn’t want her to.
“You killed a lot of people today, Jack. Most of them were only kids. They’re going to arrest you and put you on trial. You’ll have to face all those parents, you know, for what you’ve done.”
“Just leave me alone.” I whispered.
“They’re going to execute you, Jackson.”
“No they won’t!” I screamed at her but she didn’t seem to mind. “I’m 15. They wouldn’t kill a 15 year old! Get away from me!”
She scooted closer to me and nodded in excitement. Her pale skin glistened with sweat.
“Oh, they will, I promise you. They’ll try you as an adult, but don’t worry, I can help you. I can fix all of this, Jackson. I can make it all go away.” Her tongue darted out to eagerly lick the pink gloss on her lips.
I wanted to yell at her. I wanted to push her away from me. But I didn’t want her to leave. I was afraid to be alone and she knew it.
“How- how could you help me?” I whispered.
She clapped her hands and giggled, then slapped her palm over her mouth as if she had just admitted a scandalous secret. Then she explained what she called “a simple transaction”.
But it was far from simple. The girl promised that she would make the fire go away, as if it had never happened at all, and I would pay in the only currency I had – that of my soul.
With nothing to lose I agreed to her bargain. We shook on it. She offered me her body, some release if I wanted it but my stomach churned at the thought. The girl stood up then and again offered me her hand. I took it this time and she told me it was time to go.
I walked home in the dark, searching the night for sounds of sirens and tortured wails. I heard none. My town was quiet when I reached it and the elementary school was still standing. I stumbled to my knees in the middle of the street and prayed feverishly to my guardian angel in thanks. All was as she’d promised.
Over time, I slowly forgot about the fire. It had happened in another life, one that no longer existed. But it never fully left my subconscious.
By the time I was 25 I had completed 640 hours of firefighter training and was accepted to the department. By 35 I had married the Chief’s daughter and given her 2 beautiful children. But in the back of my mind I never forgot that someday the bill for my blissful happiness would come due. But, I argued with myself, maybe not. I have saved so many people, created such a beautiful family, done so much with my life. Perhaps that is enough.
It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in November. Nothing noteworthy or remarkable about it to suggest what it ultimately held for me. I had stopped at the mall on the way home from work to pick up a Christmas gift I had ordered the month before for my wife. As I stood at the counter signing for my purchase I looked over to see a baby’s stroller blocking the path out of the store. As the child shifted and the blanket fell from its misshapen head, I gasped and felt a shudder wrack my suddenly chilled body.
I could only call a monster. The child’s skin was yellowed and leaking pus. It only had one eye, which swung from its eye socket like a pendulum when he turned his head. I stared at it in horror as the angry mother gave me a murderous look and hurried the child out of the store.
I took a moment to collect myself and then ran out after her, my desperate need to protect and atone driving my pursuit. I caught her in the food court and just as I reached out to grab her I felt a violent tug on my arm and I spun around. I was confronted with by vision of horror and impossibility. The man who looked back at me was hardly a man at all. His body was a charred corpse from his feet to the top of his head where blackened skull showed through gray flakes of scorched flesh. He emitted a loud and dry hiss and his mouth worked in what I assumed were words as ash flaked off of his seared lips. Then he pushed me hard on my chest and went to stand by the woman who was almost in tears. Could she see the nightmare too?
I backed away from the creature and his spawn and ran through the mall toward the parking lot. As the stores slipped by my peripheral vision I spotted four more charred corpses watching me, many holding the hands of tiny, yellowed, bulbous monsters.
I didn’t stop running until I reached my car. I slammed the door and locked it, then sat crying in the front seat as the shadows around me grew longer and midday turned to afternoon.
I was having a breakdown. The horrors of the fire that was erased from time had finally caught up to me. I needed therapy. No, I needed more than therapy, I needed hard drugs.
As the hours ticked by and I failed to compose myself to a useful degree I realized there was only one place I could go to calm myself.
I threw my car in gear and sped across town to the only place that could assuage my guilt. The school was still there – it had to be. But as I came upon it all I found was a pile of rotting, burnt out debris. Lines of young children were filing out of the wreckage and making for the nearby school buses. The laughed and pushed each other around as if they didn’t realize they were surrounded by the detritus of my sins.
And among them I saw lurking the misshapen, nebulous balls of pus and cartilage. The monsters were here, too.
The globose creatures ran to the cars of even more charred corpses, who hugged them and kissed them on what I assumed were their cheeks. Some of the burnt up people recognized me. Some of them waved and pieces of charred flesh sloughed off of their arms. I wretched.
And I knew.
Somehow I had crossed over to the other timeline – the one that wasn’t supposed to exist. The one where I had killed so many children, burned them in their school in the middle of the day. And now the dead had grown up and had children of their own, children who were just a chaotic mass of cells and biologic matter because they were never meant to be.
This wasn’t the deal! I scream at her.
I know she’s nearby. And I know she’s listening. They’re supposed to be alive! They’re supposed to be saved!
It’s the end and I know it. She is giving me a taste of hell before she claims me. I race home to see my family one more time. To hold them and tell them how much I love them, moments to prepare me for an eternity in Hell. I know my wife is okay. I know she wasn’t born until years after the fire. And I need to see her beautiful face one last time.
I throw open the door and see her sitting in a chair by the window. She’s reading her favorite book again. Her skin is weeping and the thick, blood stained liquid falls upon the pages of her book. She shifts in her chair to look over at me and the bubbles of thin, unformed skin that cover her begin to pop as they brush against the arm chair. A putrid smell fills the room.
I back away from her with a terrified cry. It isn’t possible. I am in agony. My beloved wife is one of them. It doesn’t make sense.
A car door slams outside and I jerk toward the window to see a tall, blackened skeleton burned down to scorched bone. It is coming up the driveway with two ghoulish creatures following behind. I know it is my wife’s father and my children.
I fall to my knees and let out an agonizing scream as the equation solves itself. He had been there, fighting the fire. He had burned and she was a creature that should never have existed. And so neither should our daughters.
I spare not another look for my family because I can’t bare it. I enter the spare bedroom of my house and pull a 9mm out of the closet, a gift from my father-in-law. I slide down the wall to sit and I lean my head back against it. I load the gun and suddenly she in front of me, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She’s wears the same slutty clothes as all those years ago and her hair still smells like sweat and cotton candy. I know she’s come to collect. And I’m ready to leave this hell so that life on earth, life for my family can go back to the beautiful thing it was before, albeit without me.
I’m ready to die. I tell her. She giggles.
Release me from this pain. I beg.
She rolls her eyes and gestures to the gun in my hands. I nod in understanding and as tears roll down my face, I place the 9mm in my mouth. I send up a silent prayer that my wife and children will live happy lives after I’m gone.
I squeeze the trigger and a hole blows out the back of my head. The girl laughs. I hasten to put the gun under my chin before the pain hits and cripples me. I pull the trigger again and part of my face hits the wall next to me. I look at her with the only eye I have left. She’s giving me a dull, disinterested smile. I unload the gun into my brain and she begins to look downright bored.
And that’s when I finally realize the truth: I’m not going anywhere.
I had never gone home that night, all those years ago. I had never even left the fun house.
She stands up without sparing me a look and walks out of the room, abandoning me to the hellish nightmare beyond the door. I can hear the guttural grunting and hissing of the monsters. And that’s all they are now – monsters. I don’t have a wife and children. I never did.
Payment was due at time of service.