Everyone bundled up in layers of thermal underwear, sweaters, down coats with hats and matching gloves. The kids celebrated schools closing across five states. Store shelves emptied of everything from batteries to hot cocoa mix. Farms brought animals into their barns locking them up tight for the duration.
Coach Bern rolled the cart carrying the television into the gym. Three hundred twenty nine students filled the bleachers waiting on the roads to be cleared for buses to travel safely. Thirty seven faculty members alternated between keeping the children occupied, well behaved and distracted enough not to panic. Some held cell phones to their ears whispering to family members already protected from the weather in houses or apartments.
I stood in the doorway of the parking lot. The smoke entered my lungs spreading heat from the cigarette. Principal Merritt shot me the stink eye without saying a word. There wasn’t anywhere else for me to smoke unless I ventured into the cold and wind outside. I tipped my Mets cap to him and threw the cigarette into the nearest snow pile.
“Thank you Michael.” He returned my smile with apparently no recognition of the annoyance piled eight layers deep beneath my surface.
“Of course Mr. Merritt.” I let the door shut behind me following him to the main hallway. “Any word on the plow situation?”
“No.” He grunted over his shoulder. “The kids are getting restless, phones are going non stop with parents…they better hurry up.”
“Safety first sir.” I smiled knowing the jab would only upset him more. “At least we have movies they can watch. When I was in school we didn’t…”
“I know Michael.” He spun around glaring through his half cut glasses. Nearly a head shorter than me, he didn’t intimidate me physically. His power held sway over my job more importantly than a black eye or cracked nose. “Back in the good old days we all would walk home. This is not those days. We have higher standards of safety for these children. I am responsible for their well being. Unlike you…”
“Yes. I only drive the friggin’ bus.” I caught his eye before he looked down to the floor. “No responsibility for these kids at all.”
There might have been an apology under his breath following me through the hall.
I followed the stairs down to the boiler room. Other than the maintenance man Jeremy, nobody went down there. My cigarette smoke virtually untraceable, I lit the second one before finishing the first. I opened the boiler and threw the half smoke inside.
“Yo Mike. What’s up bro?” The voice crackled and popped. “Before you flip out, I’m real. I’m in the boiler. Yes, I live here and I’m dad gum sexy.”
I slammed the door over the whoosh of gas in the boiler. The latch flipped up swinging the door wide open until it smacked into the side of the enormous iron machine.
“Now that is rude man.” The flames roared licking beyond the edge of the hatch. “Do you slam doors on folks being friendly all the time? All I did was introduce myself. Damn. No wonder you’re single.
I’m the Fire. In case you’re wondering.”
“The Fire?” I pushed my back into the wall hoping the concrete would somehow absorb me.
“Sure.” The voice climbed to a high pitch. “Who else would I be?”
My mouth hung open unable to find any words befitting an answer. A thin flame lapped at the boiler openings edge. Bright red in a the center blending through orange and finally yellow tips sharp as blades. I pushed harder into the wall while it stretched closer to me.
“What do you want?” I whispered. The panic rising took hold of my lungs forcing more air into the next words making them a crisp bark. “What do you want from me?”
“Easy now fella.” The arm of flame stretched upward evolving into the shape of a hand. Palm forward and fingers up, it halted me in place hushing my voice back into my throat. “No need for shouting. We’re all friends here.
I’m hungry Mikey. It’s cold outside and they’ve got me working over time heating up this big old building. Do you realize I haven’t had a break in three days? Keeping those carpet crawlers warm is a full time gig. Don’t get me started on the ungrateful d-bags you work with up their either. I mean, come on.”
“I can get you a sandwich from the cafeteria…if you want.” I slid closer to the door. The fire hand stretched a finger leaving me no option but to stay put.
“I don’t dig PB&J Mikey.” The finger wagged side to side. “You can definitely help me find what I need though. If you’re willing that is.”
“Please don’t kill me.” My knees cracked against the rock floor.
“I’m not going to kill you man. Jeebuz creebus. Stop being such a pansy ass.” The hand turned lay flat on the ground next to me. The heat coming of pulsed in waves along with the colors intensity rising and fading. “Quiddy pro quoey broham. You help me…” The finger pointed to the boiler. “I help you.” The finger pointed at me.
Without thinking, I leaned my head questioningly to the side like a puppy.
“Do you like your life Mike?” The hand turned its palm upward. “I know the glamor and sexiness of a middle school bus driver must know no bounds. Dealing with that mungle munch Principal Merritt is crystalline ecstasy every minute of the day too. Why would you ever ask for anything more out of life?”
My world tilting on its axis, I didn’t feel the hand stroking my shoulder at first. Made of glowing fire, I squirreled away on my hands and knees expecting nothing less than bursting to flame from head to toe. The fingers closed firmly around my chest. Warm. Not burning. I experienced the comforting of my mothers arms cradling me as an infant fresh from a bath.
“Let me help you Michael. We can make an incredible team.” Thin tendrils slipped between my hair massaging my scalp. “I promise you a better life. A life with respect. A life filled with everything you ever dreamed.”
One tear dropped from each eye. Both etched straight lined down my cheeks at exactly the same speed. They angled inward, reaching the corners of my lips. From there they blended together at the tip of my chin. The fire caught the tear before it fell, raised it gently on the tip of a finger holding it in front of me.
“Together we can have everything we want Michael. Everything.”
The tear spread flat absorbed by the flame. I watched it split in two as it moved to my chin. My skin tickled at the heat rising along the lines to my mouths edge. It flowed upward along the tears path up my cheeks to my eyes.
The world brightened, filling everything hidden in the shadows with light. I felt my legs carry me to the boiler. Flames wrapped my brain in a hurricane of light. Veins mapping my body boiled with new blood made of heat and lovely pain. Energy forced my bones into raging weapons of lightning. Acid spit from my mouth screaming the agony of starvation. Hunger consumed every part of me from hair follicle to cracks in my toenails.
“Food.” I understood the words deeper meaning. The existential requirement for more than satiating an empty stomach. Survival.
“Yes Mikey.” The Fire spoke inside my head with me. “We need to eat. Let me teach you to stoke those embers into a bonfire that reaches the stars above bro.”
“Food.” We climbed the stairs. Feet boulders glued to the bottom of our legs. The higher we went, the heavier each step pulled against me. “Food.” The door flew open in front of us. Crossbar glowing red orange, smoke rising in swift streaks around every edge of the frame. No longer able to lift, the floor bubbled in wide streaks under each dragging step. “Food.”
“Michael.” Principal Merritt rounded the corner ahead instantly assuming a position of annoyance. Hands on hips and head cocked to the side. He sneered, eyes squinted slits ready to launch into a frustrated rant against a lowly subordinate. “Where have you been? The roads were cleared a half…”
Fire wrapped around his head. Thin sprouts launched as daggers into every available orifice. Eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, pores and hair follicles were mercilessly invaded. What did we do? We ate him. We feasted on every morsel of energy in his body.
Drained, his hollow shell fell to the floor. Ash in the shape of human skin dressed in a cheap, Sears suit drifted ahead of us in the hallway.
“Hey Mikey?” Fire laughed to us. “He likes it!”
“There is always more.” The energy surged through stronger than any line of coke or needle filled with adrenaline straight mainlined into the heart itself. “Wait until you have a building. A village. A city!”
The bell echoed through the empty school. We turned our head to the glass double door. The bus filled with shouting children eager to go home, honked for us.
“How about a traffic accident?”
We jogged through the doors, feet lighter than the surrounding air. Eager for the taste of diesel, steel, rubber and fear.