When I said I was going to cut through Egypt, Raleigh TOLD me that mummies were going to happen. I thought "Nah, I'll just be driving through. Even if there happened to be some mummage occurring in Egypt, it's not like the people of the world recognize my name as a symbol of hope and resistance against the oncoming figment invasions, and it's not like I'm going to have to use a debit card with said name to buy gas as I'm driving through literal Bum Fuck, Egypt. She said sarcastically. Typically, despite my reputation, I'm not one to seek out monster trouble. I just try to live my life in a low-key sort of way, what with my cool candy-themed t-shirts and backpack filled with items of only tangential monster-slaying potential. In the form of mean as shit townspeople like the gas station attendant that guilted me into helping. "What do you think I'm just wandering the earth so I can find people to help at random?" I told him, angrily, after he went into overly extensive detail about the plight of his community. He fell silent, as people frequently do when you sarcastically claim that they thought the thing you actually thought as if it were impossible and that they were an idiot for thinking it. Which he was. But that's not the worst thing to be. His silence was given flavor by the intense sadness and disappointment radiating out from his eyes and onto my life. "Please?" He said. "Fuck." I said. He didn't follow what the contextual meaning of this "Fuck" meant, as people often do when you speak cryptically. So I explained. "Fine, I'll help. But I'm not going to like it. And you've got like candy in that convenience store over there, right?" "Yes?" He said, using his question mark to denote confusion. I figure he thought the candy had something to do with mummy-killing. Which it does. Indirectly. "I want many candy. Now. If I die by mummy, I refuse to be on a diet." My arabic was and is rusty, but that's pretty much the translation of what I told him. He gave me the directions to the local bastion of civilization and some peanut butter cups. Generic stuff, nothing to write home about. At least they didn't use that weird peanut butter they use in Reese's that has a consistency suspiciously similar to dried up clown feces. Clown feces is particularly harsh a condemnation on my end because your typical clown has a very nutritionally sparse diet (mostly cotton candy and blood) that wreaks havok on your digestive system. I didn't really know what to expect as far as architecture for the society I was heading to, but it turns out that civilization in the part of Egypt I was heading through looked a lot like a camping trip. But with a little more fighting and a lot more mosquitoes. Or maybe they were fairies? I don't exactly understand how this "figments of mankind's inner cultural dreamscape coming into vivid life" works, but either way that shit was trying to suck my blood, it had wings, I squished it, and it screamed out in pain with all the terrible innocence of a child. Speaking of children: The local leaders of this settlement were in a big old fashioned fistfight when I arrived! Turns out the generally accepted leader of the town had pocketed an ancient and valuable relic from the local cemetery and he was now paying its price in bruised face and ego. I was informed of all of this by the new generally accepted leader of the town, Vespo. “Why are you here?” Vespo said, in a way uncharacteristic of his incredibly silly name. “One of my little birdies told me y’all were having trouble with a mummy?” I said, sounding as typically cool and attractive as always. “I don’t typically like accepting help from your type.” Vespo said. “White people?” I said, ready to agree with him 100%. “No. The bourgeois. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that golden stallion made out of actual gold, consumerist pig. God has struck down the nations of the world for their avarice, and we will be struck down for our capitalist greed in due time.” Vespo said this in English, as to improve my comprehension of his term paper on Marx. I was thirteen the last time a global economy was really in practice, so maybe my opinions would change based on experience, but I’m not partial to ranting about power systems that don’t really exist anymore. “Listen, I’m not in the business of imposing corporate values on functioning communities.” I tried to get on Vespo’s good side. I don’t think he was thrilled with my use of the word business. “I’m not in the business of anything. When I slay ancient evil for fun, not profit. I am dragonslayer.” I generally don’t like to brag about the whole “I killed a dragon with a child’s tinkertoy” thing, but I’m not afraid to use it to get my points across. Also, good god, I need to work on my arabic. Vespo eyed me over for a moment, considering his options and weighing his own odds against the horrific ancient horror beset upon his town against mine. I’m pretty sure he saw something that he liked because he jumped at the opportunity to have somebody else risk their life trying to protect the town from this mummy-type thing, and then shook my hand. From there, my first stop would be the disgraced tribal leader who couldn’t leave an ancient cursed reliquary alone. The fucko’s name was Pardo. And what a tremendous fucko that he was. Barry was shackled to the pavement in the center of town with a sign hung around his neck labeled something in arabic that roughly translates to “Fucko Jail”. He was wearing a potato sack that he didn’t choose. His skin looked like the peeled, dark, and scorched surface of a dying planet. His eyes were tender pools surrounded in shadow. The cloud cover above us seemed to be giving him a lucky break from his traditionally heat-stroke inducing circumstances. “Why’d you take the shit?” I said. “It’s what was necessary.” Pardo said, his voice hoarse for want of water. “You do realize what was necessary might have killed this town?” I was accusatory, but I don’t know these people. They might be a bunch of assholes as far as I know. “I did what was right. That’s the deal I made.” He coughed. A strike of encompassing thunder shook Pardo’s shackles. A flume of gray smoke and vapor drifted upon the town. And all of this was climaxed by a spectral bloom of coiling leviathans in the shape of a face dripping from the sky like a corpse resting on a trampoline. In a shallow whisper that was akin to rubber across a violin, the face spoke. “My tomb has been defiled. My property has been stolen. You have violated the ancient rites of my race…” Pardo looked up to the face with detachment, but I could feel its undulations like a tendril through my ear. “There is no recompense for what has occurred, but my retribution is inevitable. I can feel the desires in the depths of your hearts, as thoroughly as I can sense the quivering fear that has overcome your function. I can grasp and twist the threads that house your vitals as simply as the snake devours the mouse. I am only limited by the quality of my word, which is as erudite and stable as the mind that conjures it. So I offer to you, the huddled and weak, a simple bargain. Bring me all that has been stolen as if its condition were anew by sundown, and I shall only kill most of you. Elsewise, you will be culled as mercilessly you were put into my grasp.” The face remained hung in the sky, a constellation of fear, but its only movement were the respirations of the serpents that constructed it. “What did you do?” I screamed. But Pardo was as silent as the colony of head snakes that threatened to wipe us away in the span of an instant. ~~~ Punk ass relic jockey. Listen, when I was a kid, I wasn’t completely involved in the pop cultural zeitgeist of my parents’ youth, but I saw Indiana Jones. I get the appeal. There’s a spooky castle, a shiny antiquity, and an appetite for wealth and adventure in some people that can’t be quenched by just any old act of grand theft. But the optimist in me would like the believe that when people started getting rotisseried by scaly nightmare monstrosities and curses of their ilk, they’d be at least a little more careful in the presence of anything that might even have a left-field chance of being haunted. And yet here we are. Ancient curse. Hallowed reliquary. Punk ass relic jockey. All the ingredients for a spooky nightmare village haunted by the sins of its least thoughtful member. I think Pardo summarized his thought process best as I rattled him by the skim of his neck. “I didn’t know what I was doing.” Pardo coughed. Yeah, no shit. I let him go. His face was turning purple, and in my experience violence doesn’t do much more than make you feel better. “My daughter was sick and-” “Don’t twist this to fit whatever fairy tale is going on in your head. You are not a hero. Your daughter is not the world. By stealing whatever it was, you’ve only served to put your daughter and anyone else in your blast radius in danger.” I said. He was very still. “The relic is buried in a shallow grave behind my house in the south of town. I was always told that what the pharaohs kept in their tombs was valuable,” he said “but all I found was a shriveled corpse in tarnished jewelry.” ~~~ Pardo’s house was easy enough to find, mostly because it was the one covered in pig entrails and obscenities. That's what you get for being a punk ass relic jockey. Around the back where I assume grass used to be was a conspicuous pile of unsettled dirt. I wondered if that was where he buried the relic/corpse. Sarcastically. Stop projecting stupidity on me, future me. Internalized misogyny isn’t cool. “Pardo?” I said, motioning to said pile of unsettled dirt. Pardo swiftly found himself imbued with having a shovel and digging up the corpse he’d buried-ness for fear of being strangled by a dragon slayer again. I thought about staying, but quite frankly, it was exhausting seeing him do all that work, so I slipped into the dilapidated home in search of anything that might resemble sweets. “Aren’t you going to help?” Pardo asked, taking time away from his busy schedule of righting his mistakes. “And deprive you of this excellent opportunity to atone for your mistakes?” I said, slipping behind his porch door and out of the gloom of the serpentine face dominating the sky. Fortunately, Pardo’s home had two rooms, kitchen and bathroom, and I had landed in the marginally less pungent of the two. First place to look would normally be the fridge, but the closest analogue was the type of cooler you’d normally see at a thrift store and wonder “Who would buy a cooler from a thrift store? Aren’t coolers luxury items purchased and used by the bourgeoisie in their increasingly limp attempts at reconnecting with some sense of fraternity with the natural world? Also, what is that strange burgundy stain across the side and is it from blood or vomit?” Okay maybe that last detail was specific to this cooler. White rice. Yellow rice. Wild rice. Bread knife? Pardo had no idea what he was doing with his cabinet situation. Either devote them all to loose rice, or devote them all to weird knives. Egypt is a second-world country at worst. There was no excuse for his inability to properly organize a kitchen. “Are you one of the people that chained my dad to the center of town?” I looked behind me. Standing there, as spunky as the day she was conceived, was a teenager as grumpy as she was short (very). “I’m from out of town. Your dad’s outside digging if you-” “Are you here to deal with the mummy?” She asked. She didn’t even sound impressed. Kids these days are so disaffected with the issues of our time. “I think we’re all kind of dealing with the mummy in our own way.” I said. What? I didn’t want to go into my whole dragonslayer thing. I had candy to find. “If you’re gonna raid our cabinets, at least be honest with me. White lady comes to town for mysterious reasons immediately after the snakes start rising out of the sky and it’s all a coincidence?” She said. And I didn’t appreciate her tone one little bit. “Yes.” I answered, returning to the mostly barren cabinets. “What are you looking for?” She asked. Finally, a question I was interested in answering. “I need… Damn it, ما هي كلمة للسكر؟” I said, asking where the sugar was, except the english part was in arabic and the arabic part was in english. Damn, my arabic is rusty. Note to self: buy rosetta stone. “There’s chocolate in this house.” She said. “Wait, هل تتحدث الانجليزية؟” I asked, hoping that she could comprehend the statement “Do you speak english” in english. Because that was the language in which I asked if she spoke english. “What?” “So you don’t speak english?” “Of course not.” “Then how did you know that I wanted sweets?” “You have a chocolate bar on your t-shirt.” Damn. Made an idiot by my own renegade sense of style. I never thought it would betray me this way. “Where’s the chocolate?” I had no intention of sharing the tale of my incredible journey with a kid that had gotten the best of me. “How are you gonna kill the mummy?” She had no intention of not being a dick about any of this. Fuck this kid. Pardo walked in. He looked like he had upturned most of the soil with his clothes rather than with the shovel. “I finished digging up the corpse.” He said. “I’m finished talking with this lying woman.” She said. Her father wound up the turncrank on his back. “You will not talk to her that way.” Pardo said. He stepped purposefully towards his young to the tweenfull daughter. “What has she done for us? She’s raiding our home!” His daughter said. “She saved me from the stockades-” He interrupted his explanation with a swing at his daughter. She didn’t catch most of it, and kept yelling. “Maybe you were better off there!” Her face was red in the way that a baby’s leg gets when they take a fall. Before our good friend Pardo could get another swing in, I knocked him out cold. Child abusers tend to be weak shit like that. “Isa, the world is a scary place. Especially when you’ve got a dad who seems to be as dead weight as yours is.” Said the girl on an intercontinental quest to find her deadbeat mom. “What’s your name?” She wasn’t talking. The bruise from where her father had slapped her was dripping down into a frown, and she looked vacantly at what remained of her father’s dignity in that way that children often do. “If you think I wouldn’t guilt a child into telling me their name,” I said, with finger outpointed for emphasis. “You’d be wrong.” “Isa.” She said. “Samantha.” I said. “That’s an ugly name.” She said. “And?” She said. “I killed a dragon with my bare hands.” I lied. I used a sword, but who’s counting? Isa squinted skeptically. “That curse will kill us all.” She said. Pessimist. She was probably right, though. ~~~ “So what’s the plan again ?” Isa yelled from across the square in the center of town where the face still hung. “I’m gonna call this thing out. Beasts go running scared when they hear I’m in town.” I said. “Make sure we don’t die at this thing’s hands earlier than we normally would.” Isa said. Little shit. “Hey. Watch it.” I said. I had brought my sword with me. Back before all of this, I used it to chop a dragon in half, and before that, I used it to LAARP and just generally be a fucking nerd. My best guess would be that the dragon I beat the shit out of was also a huge nerd. Does that make me a bully? I didn’t exactly know that the dragon was going to be a huge nerd when I tried to slice it in half with my replica sword, so I wasn’t like targeting it or anything, so if it was bullying, it wasn’t because I was targeting him or anything. Also I totally murdered him, and I feel like it’s not completely clear whether murder is a form of bullying. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh right, mummy. The snakes in the sky coalesced into a circular rim around where I stood. No Isa. No town. Just a hurricane of spectral flying snakes. I held my sword up and taunted. “Hey fucksnakes, there’s a new sheriff in town and her name is me!” The face opened its eyes and revealed stormy azure skies from beyond its clutch. No response though. Probably was still reeling from the fucksnakes insult. This was my opportunity for a sick combo. “I’m Samantha Gagarin. I watched Paris burn when I was nine years old. I watched everyone I ever loved get ripped away from me. I cut a dragon clean in half with this sword right here.” I readied my sword in his general direction. “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.” The face was still, but then what could generously be described as a mouth contorted into a twisted smile thin and long like a crescent moon. First came silence, then a laughter dark and gruesome like the crackling of a fire. “You amuse me.” It whispered. “Small and insignificant. Clinging to what remains of your fractured identity. As if saying your name loud and strong enough can ward off the darkness. They have called me the abyssal trickster. The immortal falsehood. The lying horror. These were given to me because I have found no need to say otherwise. Power comes by reputation, not introduction.” The face laughed again and brought the rim of snakes closer to me. “I see you found what remains of my treasure. Do you expect me to spare you in exchange for its return?” It said. “I expect you to take it and leave, or eat shit and die.” I said. “I can spare you, if that’s what you choose, but I cannot do the same for the rest. They must be punished for their complacency.” “Same offer I made earlier. Take the corpse and leave, or eat shit and die.” I said. The face was silent and still for a moment, as if beneath its horrifying forehead of serpents and clouds was a brain in midst of deep thought. “Eat shit and die, then?” I said, and made my best “I’m about to swing a sword” face. “We both know you’re not as strong as you say you are, but I’ve always had a soft spot for pluckish overconfidence, so I’ll make you the same offer I made that corpse’s idiot mother.” It said. “Which is?” “Tell me my name, and I’ll go.” The face looked at me expectantly. I didn’t think he expected me to know who he was, which was honestly a pretty good assumption. Okay so all those fancy titles made him sound like he wanted me to think he was the devil, but that’s had to have been a misdirect. If he were the devil, he’d just tell me he was the devil. Also, big obvious snake face in the sky isn’t exactly the devil’s style. So I can safely rule out the names Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, Ronald, and Heather. But he’s still a figment, so I’m pretty certain I’ve heard of him somewhere. All of his titles had something to do with lying, and he really seemed to be attached to a corpse covered in jewelry. Goldilocks? No. “Wait,” I said. “Rumplestiltskin?” The face imploded in a flash of green light and the hurricane of snakes vanished. “What?” Isa said. She looked up at the clear sky as if she were expecting the face to return and wreak its certain doom over everything she ever knew. “I told it who I was and it went running like a little bitch.” I lied, again. I mean, who’s counting. Isa’s jaw dropped. ~~~ When everything was said and done, I had kind of saved everyone’s lives. When the other people in town asked if there was anything they could do for me, I told them to take care of Isa in lieu of her scumpuddle dad. When they asked me if I wanted to stay, I told them that I still had parts of the earth left to roam as I gazed off into the middle-distance. Pretty cool, right? It was nice being wanted, though. As I loaded back into my car, Isa approached. “I appreciate what you did for us.” “When you’re as awesome as I am, it’s your responsibility to take care of weaker people.” I said, ruffling her hair playfully. She didn’t think it was funny. “Even if you were as strong as you’re pretending to be, you still wouldn’t have to.” She said. I smiled. “And I know that you’ve probably got other places to be, but I know for a fact that we need you here.” She said. “Isa-” “Cut the bullcrap. I know you’re not ‘roaming the earth’, and unless you can give me a better excuse than that, I’m not gonna forgive you.” Isa said. “I’m looking for my mom.” I said. She stared at me, as if that weren’t enough. “We were in Paris when it fell, and she left me there. She wasn’t perfect, and I don’t even know if I’ll be able to forgive her, but I won’t know until I meet her and try.” I said. I saw a little bit of myself in Isa when she didn’t completely understand, but I think she respected it. “See you around?” She said. “Only if I don’t die first.” I said. “No way. You fucked up Rumplestiltskin.”
Lighting fires is more complicated than it used to be. Back when I was a kid, even for want of a match, you could use a magnifying glass and get what you came for. 100% satisfaction. No rules if you looked innocent enough. No punishment if you could put up with the looks of adults who think you don’t know better. No practical considerations if you’re smart enough to stay dumb. At least, that’s the way I remember it. Nostalgia is complicated like that.
Family dog strayed close to my frantic limbs and got singed in the fireplace. I don’t remember what my parents thought his name was. To me, he was only Sparky.
“Only superficial burns.” The veterinarian said. How could he dismiss something so beautiful as superficial? I remember Sparky’s congealed face better than I remember my mother’s. I watched him best that I could after that because I owed him everything. When I would stroke his coat, he would hemorrhage fur between my fingers like each time we parted the inches between us were small doggy deaths. My dog. My friend. My forgiver. That’s not nostalgia, that’s just the way love worked.
Caught in smoke. I dropped the computer and it shattered into a mess of hot pieces. I could smell the burnt linoleum from the hall. The flames held close to me as I ran through the apartments. I thought about how Sparky’s eye was partially closed on one side from the burns. The smoke caught me fully. Intoxicating and breathless. The tarmac was warm, then too warm on my cheek.
I wished I had been able to steal more. Empty houses, tripped security alarms. People assume what I take was lost in the fire. Do you think this hobby pays for itself? Matches, lighters, tinder, kindling, gasoline, transportation, scouting, strategy, time management, location, acting lessons. And those are just the supplies if you’re white. Not every satisfying hobby can be cheap.
The first time I felt her touch was when she was compressing my stomach in a vain attempt to limit the damage of the fire. Ha. She did cute things like that. I coughed black crap on her face without the hint of a flinch. She smiled, and I was warm.
“Am I going to die?” I said.
“You’re going to be okay.” She said. Her voice: indulgent and active. Like a dancer.
They put me an ambulance paid for by health insurance I wouldn’t have the money for after the charges on my credit card went through. The firefighter stayed with me. Attempting to limit the damage of the fire.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Phoenix.” She said.
“Isn’t that a little on the nose for a firefighter?” I said.
She laughed. That was when I knew that I’d miss her when she died.
Everything got colder and foggier as they took me away from the fire. As they closed the doors and separated us, the room was struck by a chill.
Sometimes, when I’m alone or when I’m passed out in the back of an ambulance, I hope if people remember me that it’ll be for the fires and not my face. People look at you different once you look like you’ve been through an oven. They think you’re one too many burns away from being a normal person. People were bastards. I don’t know if I could look people in the eye if I didn’t have the burns to look forward to.
Six weeks. I could have completed an online traffic school in the amount of time I spent in the hospital. Instead they taught me how to use two-fifths of my hand and how to properly air out the remains of my face too unsettling to be left in the public eye.
They told me I was highly motivated to complete my physical therapy because I was. I was close. I could taste it. I needed to be back on the streets lighting fires again.
They told me I was one of the most motivated patients they’d ever seen because I was. Hospitals are cold. Hospitals are laminated. Hospitals are in desperate want of any sort of clutter. I would never burn a hospital. I would never go back to one. I didn’t need medicine, I had obsession. I longed to be in the public eye.
I was out in five and a half weeks. I was back where I belonged.
They gave me a name. Not an interesting one like the Crispy Bandit, or the Angel of Screaming Flame. The “Cottondale Arsonist”. I didn’t even set that fire in Cottondale. That was a gas fire and any amateur could tell you that. I’ve ramped up. Three fires in three weeks. They think I’m scaling up to practice for the solar eclipse, but that’s just a fun coincidence.
Sometimes people will see my face and ask me if I’m one of my victims. As if the only thing that pops into their mind when they see me is how they can connect me to passing information they’d just as soon discard if given the chance. I make notes of these people’s names so that I can steal all of their favorite things from their houses while I light the rest of their things on fire. People ask me that question a lot. I’ve been busy.
But she wasn’t at any of them. I broke ritual and waited at the fire for fifteen minutes. None of the firefighters who arrived even looked excited to be at the fire! I mean, the nerve of the thing. What’s the point of being in the business if you don’t love your craft?
I called all of the Phoenix’s in the phonebook and left voice messages on all the ones I didn’t creep out voice-to-voice. I wondered if she would approve of my hobby and promptly purchased three hundred dollars worth of unscented candles. She called me back promptly and I felt my heart vacate itself losslessly.
Coffee followed by lunches. I thanked her for saving my life. Dates followed by late phone calls. Sometimes on days when she’d touch my face, I didn’t light the candles by my bedside. Delayed gratification preceded by immediate connection. In moments, I could feel only where she wasn’t as if my skin were calling out for something recognizable as one and itself.
Life burned its pace relentlessly.
“Do you like your job?” I asked.
“Do you like yours?” Phoenix asked.
“Unemployment? Absolutely.” I said. Phoenix smiled in the polite lovely way that good friends do at mediocre jokes.
“I mean, it’s dangerous and challenging and the pay is bad and I hate all of my co-workers but-”
“You love it?”
“… Yeah.” Phoenix said. She laughed and I knew for certain in that way only love could.
“I know the feeling.” I looked deep into her.
“I have something I want to tell you.” I said. She frowned.
“Don’t.” She said.
She took my hand and loved it as closely that she could.
“You look so beautiful.” She said, reaching for my face and touching my scars. Warmth. Volatility. Burden.
“There’s something wrong with me.” I said.
“It’s okay.” She said.
“I love you but-” Phoenix clenched something in my hand.
“Love is more complicated than putting out a fire.”
I lit the whole world on fire. The sun turned a lighter shade of bright to better the bloom that was in the air. I stole things people didn’t deserve while Phoenix saved the things they did. Standing water and metallic bowls stopped smelling like guilt. Even the burning buildings stopped smelling like joy. Eventually, I only ever cared to burn the things which meant the most to me. Life became uncomplicated. We lived life ceaselessly as we slowly backed away from the fires and closer to each other, drawn like moths to an open flame.