As Alex walks through the glowing embers of the burning building, she checks her phone to be certain it’s actually on fire. Do people know I’m here? she wonders while clearing her complexion of any ash or debris. Her phone lies in wait at the end of her arm, ready to assist her in any way she needs. She extends the camera seven inches above eye-level. Roaring flames rip through the hallway in the background as she snaps the first pic, posting it with an enticing caption: “Does anyone know what’s up with our old high school?”
Nostalgia disintegrates to the tile floors all around Alex. She does her best not to inhale the last memories of her formative years. Despite the smoky haze, the crumbling entryway holds the same inauspicious aura it had the first morning Alex entered, ten years prior; a violent fight between parents, a rusting pick-up truck screeching to a halt, a final glance from a father that she did not have the time to recognize as goodbye. Though the school permanently closed a few years ago, Alex has been posting pictures in front of the entrance ever since, hoping her father would reach out and reminisce about the last place where they were a family. He never has. Instead, she relies on her selective memories about what a family is, how love should feel, and when to leave it all behind her. After snapping the picture, she hurriedly pushes off her knees to get up from her practiced crouch as a piece of ceiling tumbles toward her. She presses “post” on her picture, brushes herself off, and continues moving forward.
Alex’s phone alerts her of incoming remarks from former friends and current acquaintances. She fixes her eyes to the screen, backlit by the flames: “OMG SO SAD! Great pics though!” “Awesome use of light. About time someone got rid of that place.” Though she was hoping someone would ask if she’s okay, she still appreciates the compliments on her photography. The same darkroom pursuits that made her something of a freak once upon a time have translated into a valuable real-world skill. The pictures she posts on her socials routinely enjoy an onslaught of admiration. Strangers see her photos and want to add her to their list of friends, a request Alex is always excited to accept. More often than not, however, her messages go unanswered. Her invitations are met with silence or excuses. She realized a long time ago that friendship is only recognizable in the comment section of her pictures. With this in mind, she traverses her way across her smoldering past to find the perfect shot.
Around a familiar corner is Alex’s old homeroom. She sees the same dented locker and inconsequential trophy case that remained unchanged before the school shut down, and she remembers exactly where she is. Quickly, she turns the corner in an attempt to elude the encroaching inferno incinerating everything behind her. Using the light bouncing off the glass of the trophy case, Alex turns her back to the door and positions herself. She shrugs her left shoulder and asks the world: “Anyone remember this room?” Alex remembers the room. She has never forgotten the snickering and staring directed at her when she entered that day. Phones were passed around and private pieces of herself meant for someone special had been abused and ridiculed. Almost on cue, a boy responds with a typical line: “I remember! Lookin hot! Hit me up!” It might be the boy responsible for the pain all those years ago. It’s hard for Alex to know. He doesn’t matter. More comments flood her vision as the flames make ready to corner her; more bad puns and pick-ups about being hot, some questions about how the fire started, no one offering to help.
Out of room to run from the flames, Alex turns around and faces her old homeroom. Like she was taught as a child, she presses the back of her hand to the metal handle. Feeling its red-hot heat arrest her like a stop sign, she hesitates. She knows what waits for her if she enters that room again, but every door behind her has vanished. She inhales the tainted air and consoles herself. “It’ll be okay now,” she whispers. A mighty breath-out powers a shoulder-thrust through the threshold. The backdraft rushes into the room behind her. Charred loose-leaf papers swirl into a whirlwind of scorched memories and malicious intent. An eruption of pulsating crimson swarms around Alex’s head as a meandering ember floats down and sticks her in the back. As the fire envelops her body, she knows she can not let the scene go to waste. Flesh melts away from her arm and evaporates on the floor of the school, but she raises her phone up without issue. Her nose dissolves into a hideous stump, her eyes begin to bulge and sizzle, but the beauty of her in this light is undeniable. Alex blissfully fades away from the moment with a singed smile, reveling in the thought of the comments that will carry her into forever:
“You’re such an artist!” “Your father would be proud!” “SMOKING HOT! Take more!” “I heard she started the fire.” “She’s so deep and mysterious.” “She was my best friend.” “#Alexisonfire.”
Robert Ball graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English/writing from Northern Michigan University in December of 2018. While attending, he worked as an editing intern for Passages North literary magazine. His fiction most recently appeared in Third Point Press and Prometheus Dreaming and was nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize and the Pushcart Prize.
Kyla is a Visual Artist with a focus on drawing and painting. Originally from New Orleans and now lives in Toronto. She uses art as a way to intersect her passions and escape from reality, stemming most of her ideas from the subconscious. Her style is abstract with a psychedelic touch. Kyla tends to combine realism within her abstract work as well. She hopes her artwork sends a message and provokes conversation among viewers.