Why Not Be Totally Changed Into Fire?

It’s one of those pulpy paper flyers stapled to a telephone pole, and it’s too deliciously cryptic for Abbey not to rip down and keep. Why not be totally changed into fire? There’s a picture of a robed and hooded figure raising his hands to heaven, his fingertips bursting into little spits of flame. Below the text is a phone number.

And why not be totally changed into fire? Abbey wonders as she walks the last few blocks home. It’s probably religious nutjobs. Either that or some kind of urban guerrilla marketing campaign. She pins the flyer to the wall of her tiny studio apartment and looks at it every now and then, mouthing the words to herself. Why not be totally changed into fire?

There’s a backhanded motivational quality to the line, hang in there, just do it, that ad-space air of condescension–why not be totally changed into fire? It’s easy, you’re just not trying hard enough.

 

It isn’t until Kathy comes over and they’re drinking red box wine that Abbey even thinks about calling the number. She only thinks about it because she knows Kathy will see the flyer, and Kathy is the type to see a phone number printed somewhere and be compelled to call it. Sure enough, she does.

“Oh my god, what is this flyer? It’s hilarious,” she says, phone already in hand. “Have you called the number? I’m calling the number.”

Abbey wants to tell her no, stop, but she says nothing. Kathy doesn’t get things like that–that delicious virginal wholeness of the little mysteries left unsolved. Kathy loves knowing. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, she calls it. Kathy, Abby has realized, is that rare person who genuinely enjoys data entry.

Abbey is mildly baffled by statistics, the sales figures, the strange transubstantiation of reality into raw data for processing. She’s constantly in awe of spreadsheets, the cells boxing the numbers, the computers crunching the number-boxes, spitting out new numbers in other boxes. It takes the wonder out of life. She tried to tell Kathy this once. Why would you want to wonder about things? Kathy said. I always want to be sure.

The phone is ringing and Kathy is trying to stifle a giggle. Then somebody picks up on the other end and she puts on a serious face.

“Hello? Hi. Yes. I have a friend here who would like to speak with you.” She moves the phone away from her mouth and covers the bottom of it with her hand.

“It’s a guy,” she whispers. “He sounds hot.” She thrusts the phone at Abbey. “What? I’m always saying you need to get out more. This could be good for you.” Abbey is shaking her head but she finds herself taking the phone anyways.

“Hello?” she says.

“Hello,” says the voice. “May I ask with whom I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“Uh, Abbey, Abbey Lotte,” she says, taken off guard. Kathy is right about the voice, though her choice of words is, as usual, a bit simplistic. The man’s voice is deep and pure, but with this waver of underlying emotion, as though he might suddenly begin to weep or give a rousing speech or sing jazz. It reminds Abbey of the river by her Uncle’s cabin, how at night it would freeze over but in the moonlight you could still barely see the dark current moving beneath the ice.

“Hello Abbey. Thank you for calling, or thank your friend for calling for you. You saw my flyer, I presume?” says the voice.

“Yeah. Why not be totally changed into fire? What does that even mean?”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I could do it justice over the phone. I could tell you my name, however, which is Joseph.”

“Could you at least try to explain it, Joseph? I’ve just been curious, is all,” she says.

“Well yes, I could try,” he says. “It’s good that you were curious. Curiosity is what I mean to inspire in people. I guess you could say I’m an artist, of sorts. The question is one that has been posed to me, one that has helped me in my own pursuits. It is a question that I wish to pose to others who have looked at the world and looked at themselves, seeking something. Tell me Abbey, what do you seek?”

“Well, I don’t really know,” says Abbey. “I guess, meaning? That sounds cliche…”

“Perhaps it is,” he says, “But only because that is what we all seek. Listen, Abbey, I realize it’s a bit forward of me, but I’d like to meet you to discuss things further in person. I find speaking on the phone to be a rather estranging activity.”

“Ok,” says Abbey, surprising herself a little. “Where do you want to meet?”

Kathy clutches her wineglass excitedly, pressing the rim against her lips.

“How about tomorrow, three p.m. at the ice rink in the mall. Know it?” Abbey thinks back to the last time she went ice skating there. It was with that guy Kevin on their third date, which had been a disaster. Kevin was showing off and then fell and smashed his face all up. Abbey had to drive him to the hospital while he sniffled and bled in the passenger seat of his own truck. That was the end of that. She hopes Joseph is a better skater than Kevin.

“I know it,” she says.

“Perfect,” says Joseph. “I look forward to seeing you then.” Abbey is about to say something else, but she realizes he’s already hung up.

“Oh my god, I wasn’t really serious,” says Kathy. “What did he say? You’re meeting him in person? Where? Do you want me to go with you?”

“Uh, no, yeah, no,” says Abbey, unsure of which question she’s supposed to be answering. “He said he was an artist or something. He wants me to meet him at the ice rink? I don’t know.”

“Oh my god, what are you going to wear? You have to wear something cute.”
“I don’t know, that one sweater?” says Abbey. “I don’t think it’s a date.”

“Honey, you’re going ice skating. Of course it’s a date,” says Kathy. “You should wear black. Those artist types are always moody.” She takes a sip of wine and smiles, her bleach-white teeth momentarily stained reddish. Abbey drinks too.

 

She does end up wearing something black, though it probably isn’t what Kathy would call cute. It’s another sweater–she couldn’t find that one she was thinking of in the pile of clothes on her floor. This one is also a good sweater though, old and thick, soft, and a little too big, a sweater to be hidden within.

She leaves at 2:05 to catch the bus to the mall. Abbey doesn’t have a car. She finds it terrifying to enter into that hectic flow, everybody trying to get wherever before everybody else and ending up stuck dead in traffic, helpless, a tiny trapped thing. Better to let the busdriver worry about all that and sit back, peoplewatching.

Abbey scans the bus, her eyes passing over the muttering guy with newspaper bags for sleeves, the woman who’s literally wider than she is tall, the tall skinny guy with what must be six-inch gauges and black tattoos crawling up his neck, the old man with shades as dark as his skin, sitting so still he could be dead, the ratty kid with dreadlocks and a high-end hiking backpack but no shoes. What forces have conspired to collect them all here on this bus? Where will they go once they get off?  

As she’s thinking about the people, Abbey realizes that she has no idea what Joseph looks like, and she never gave him a description of herself either. For all she knows, he could be one of the people on the bus now, though nobody here looks like the owner of that voice on the telephone.

Abbey moves to stand in front of the doors. She likes exiting right as the bus sinks down with its hydraulic sigh. She pretends as though she’s stepping through an airlock onto an untouched alien surface. She’s sometimes surprised when the air is breathable on the outside, when there are people out there and their language is familiar, as though the late-night sci-fi movie of her life has taken a turn for the surreal.

 

Entering the mall feels like a continuation of the same bizarre movie. Here is the flashy tech store that sells earbuds and massage chairs and spy-camera equipped quadcopters. Here’s the cavernous clothing store with punk-rock neon blacklight flickering in the doorway, next to it the pastel boutique where the line between shoppers and mannequins is comically blurred. Along the walkways sit kiosks staffed by suicidally bored teenagers that will bedazzle your phone or pierce your ear or print you a custom plastic gold chain with your name on it.

Everything here is trying too hard to seem real, slipping into an uncanny valley of carefully yet obviously orchestrated things and space and light. The effect is so strong that it seems to cling to the people as well, all of them looking around, bewildered, walking as if drawn along, flowing by desire and design through the meticulous circuit, a current of people and money and exchanges generating a subtly palpable energy.

Before she can see it, Abbey smells the sweet, greasy aroma of the food court, hears the busy hum of eating and a hundred soft conversations. Soon she steps into the panorama of chain restaurants pressing in around a huddle of people and tables. A cherubic looking girl offers little sample cups of banana-mango smoothie. Another one proffers chicken niblets on toothpicks.

Abbey takes her niblet and her smoothie and can’t help but be reminded of communion, before her parents stopped making her go to sunday school. She pictures little chicken Jesus preaching to her and laughs. These are my niblets I give unto you. This is my exotic blended fruit drink.

 

The ice rink is located in the center of the mall such that all paths lead eventually to it. Abbey arrives simply by wandering in a vaguely straight line. The rink shines under the flourescent lights, the ice a mesmerizingly translucent surface that draws eyes in and around. It’s on the ground floor but there’s an open atrium with a railing above so shoppers on the second floor can look down on the skaters moving in lazy ovals round the edge. Abbey takes a seat by the skate rental and surveys the scene.

There aren’t many people on the ice today. A group of younger girls giggle and bump into one another at the far end of the rink. The only other person is a man skating determinedly around the perimeter, his black hair whipping out behind him. Abbey watches how he moves, how he crosses his feet over one another in fluid steps and leans deep into the turns, making it look as though he’s floating just above the ice. After a few laps he notices Abbey watching him and stops before her in a spray of ice.

“You must be Abbey,” he says. It’s Joseph. He has that unmistakable voice from the telephone, only every aspect of its depth and timbre are amplified in person.

“Yeah, how did you know?” she asks.

“Well who else would you be? You’re just where you should be, right on time,” he says, looking at his watch. “Would you like to skate with me?” Without waiting for a reply, he calls to the small redheaded girl at the skate rental counter. “Jean, be a dear and get Abbey here some skates. It’s on me.”

“Sure thing,” says Jean, then looks Abbey up and down. “What are you, like, a six-point-five?”

“Yeah, how did you know?” asks Abbey again.

“I see a lot of feet.” says Jean, chewing gum. She turns around and grabs a pair of skates off the rack. Abbey trades Jean her shoes for the skates and puts them on, pulling the laces as tight as she can, until it almost hurts, then wrapping the extra string around once more and double-knotting. She stands up on the blades and wobbles to the boards where Joseph holds the door open, offering his hand.

She takes it and steps onto the ice, half-walking awkwardly for a few feet before remembering how it feels to glide, the exaggerated kick motion into the coast, the trusting of the body to the blade’s slim purchase. She wonders why she doesn’t go ice skating more often, then remembers Kevin’s smashed up face.

“What do you know? She’s a natural,” says Joseph, skating up beside her. He falls in step and they begin slowly circling the rink as Joseph speaks.

“So where were we?”

“You were telling me about your flyer.”

“Aahh yes. And you were intrigued by it. Curious, as you put it. And I said that it was my intention to inspire curiosity. I told you I was an artist, whatever that means,” he laughs. “I guess I am an artist of sorts, but only insofar as we are all artists. I am but a lonely self, a self that above all wants to be known and understood. In short, I want to make a statement. No, I want to be a statement, and I want that statement to have an effect. If I remember correctly, you were saying that you’re in search of meaning?” Abbey nods. “Good, good,” says Joseph. “I think that this is how we all feel. We are united in this desire. Sadly, I have found that one cannot discover meaning, because meaning is an imposition. Meaning is action, by definition. Definition itself is a form of this very imposition. To mean, we must act. This is the truth toward which I reach when I speak of being changed into fire. Ancient peoples considered fire to be an element, but they were wrong. Fire is a reaction. All action is in fact reaction. The action which is not a reaction, this is what some people would call god. Some people might call it the big bang, but the idea is the same, at least in the metaphysical sense. At some point there must have been an origin, the logic goes. I’m not so sure of that, but I digress. And at this point it no longer matters either way. Ours is a world of reactions. This much is clear. So when I speak of being totally changed into fire, I speak of acknowledging that the self, the body and the mind, consist entirely of reactions. Meaning is a kind of burning. It both warms us and consumes us. And most important of all is this: from each flame, another flame may be lit. Are you following me?”

“I think so,” says Abbey.

“Good,” says Joseph. “So, as I said, I wish to become meaningful. I wish to kindle a flame in another mind. But for that I needed another person, so I put out my flyers and they brought you to me, and now here we are. A series of actions and reactions. Let me ask you this, Abbey. Are you ready to act?”

“What do you want me to do?” she asks. “I guess it depends on what you have in mind.”

“What do you think of this mall?” he asks.

“Uh, it’s ok,” she says.

“Ok? Come on. Tell me what you really think of it.”

“Well, I guess, it’s just bizzare. All this stuff and all these people. Like, why this? Why them? Is this really the way things have turned out? Out of all the infinite possibilities, this is the way things are?” Joseph nods.

“It does seem rather absurd, looking around at it–the artifice of it all. And yet all of this is the consequence of an infinite and largely untraceable series of reactions. This mall, this rink, us skating here is and always has been inevitable. I guess you could say I’m a determinist, though I dislike the term. It takes the wonder out of things. Everything is inevitable, but it still surprises and delights me.”

Joseph turns to a woman in a pantsuit walking by the rink. “Excuse me ma’am, I was wondering if you might have a moment to discuss art in its relation to causality with me and my friend here.” The woman looks at him, then quickens her pace and pulls out her phone, staring at it intently as she walks away. Joseph laughs. “What a time to be alive!” he shouts. “Let me say, Abbey, I couldn’t be happier to have met you.” Abbey blushes.

“So what is this act you have planned?” she asks.

“Well, I don’t want to spoil it by revealing too much, but It’s a performance piece, and I want to do it here, on this ice rink, for these people. It seems to me a natural stage, and they seem a natural audience–one in desperate need of such an act.”

“So where do I come in,” asks Abbey.

“Well, I was thinking that in this day and age a performance doesn’t have to be limited to the people who see it in person. I was hoping that you would film my performance and help me put it out there for everybody to see, so that they too might receive my message.”

Abbey nods. His request seems more benign than whatever she was anticipating. “Sure, I could do that,” she says. “I work with computers for my job. I have a camera.” Joseph claps his hands together.

“Perfect, wonderful,” he says. ”I had a feeling about you, Abbey.” She can’t help but smile. His excitement is palpable. For a moment neither of them say a word. Abbey listens to the rhythm of their skates scraping the ice, the faint laughing of the girls across the rink, and behind that the noises of bustling commerce, the music emanating from the storefronts, the snippets of conversation and the squeaks and clacks of shoes on the polished tile floor.

“When are you going to do it?” she asks finally.
“Well, finding you was the last part of my plan, so soon. Not today, but soon. Maybe, say, a week from now?”

“Yeah,” says Abbey. “That works for me.”

“Magnificent,” says Joseph. “Would you like to see a little something?”

“Sure,” say Abbey. Joseph looks at her, then turns and skates away, gaining speed. He brings his right leg back, then sweeps it up as he jumps into an impossible spin. For a second his image is lost, suspended in a swirl of motion, until just as suddenly he’s landing gracefully on one leg, skating backwards and facing her. He bows for Abbey and she smiles, watching the group of young girls. They’ve stopped bumping into one another and are all staring silently at Joseph as he twirls back around towards her.

“Wow,” she says as he arrives. “Is that part of the performance?” Joseph nods, catching his breath.

“I think it’s going to be spectacular.”

 

“Sooo? How did it go? You have to tell me everything!” says Kathy at work.

“Uh, fine,” says Abbey. “It wasn’t a date.”

“Honey, you went ice skating. Of course it was a date,” says Kathy. “What did you wear?”

“Something black,” says Abbey. “A sweater. Not that one.”

“Oh, well, I’m sure you looked cute anyways,” says Kathy. “What was he like? How was his voice in person? He had a sexy voice? What did you say his name was?”

“Joseph,” says Abbey.

“Joseph.” Kathy repeats. “Huh. Not like, Joe, Joey? Joseph…huh. Serious. Well, what was he like?”

“He was kinda intense,” says Abbey, not quite sure how to put Joseph into words. “His voice was intense. He talked a lot.”

“Oh, honey that’s never good,” says Kathy, a worried look on her face. “You don’t want a man who talks too much.”

“It was fine,” says Abbey. “It was interesting. I told you, it wasn’t a date. He wanted me to help him film a performance that he’s doing. He’s a really good ice skater.”

“He’s does ice skating performances? And you’re sure he’s not a fruit?” asks Kathy, her brow furrowed.

“I don’t know Kathy, and why would that matter? It wasn’t a date. He was looking for someone to help him with this thing and I’m going to do it, ok? Can we leave it at that?”

“Jeez,” says Kathy. “No need to get all touchy.” She walks out of Abbey’s cubicle in a huff. She comes back a few minutes later.

“When is his thing?” she asks. “Can I go?”

“Sure, he said it’s a public thing, I think. It’s next Saturday, 3:00 at the ice rink in the mall.”

“Huh,” says Kathy.

 

On Saturday, Abbey takes the same bus to the mall, but this time it’s running ten minutes later. She wonders why, wonders what combination of imperceptible differences added up to ten lost minutes today. Then, picturing the possibilities, she starts to feel mildly amazed that there is only a day-to-day variance of about fifteen minutes in the bus schedule, the inscribing of an order onto what she so often perceives as utter chaos.

She does her usual routine at the mall stop, standing in front of the door and stepping out dramatically, breathing in deep, a tiny part of her expecting the air to be wrenched from her lungs and out into the flat vacuum of space. Instead there’s a breeze and a rhythm–an old man with cracked olive skin and a long grey beard drumming furiously on a makeshift trap set of buckets, cans and pieces of sheet metal. The beat seems to keep turning back in on itself, writhing, alive, and as Abbey watches the drummer she starts to see how it’s working, how his one hand is hitting three in the time the other hits two, so the patterns phase in and out of one another, oscillating together, orbiting an unseen center.

Abbey gets to the rink a little quicker this time, having a greater sense of urgency and a vague idea of how to get there. When she does, she finds Joseph already there, holding a duffel bag and speaking with a mall security officer. She walks up close enough that she can hear what they’re saying.

“No sir, this is just my equipment. My skating equipment,” he says.

“Don’t you just need skates?” asks the security guard

“Oh no,” says Joseph. “These days they make all sorts of high-tech pads for training purposes.”
“Pads, eh? Can I see ‘em?” asks the guard.

“I’m afraid not, you see, they’re terribly smelly,” says Joseph. “I wouldn’t want to trouble you with the odor.”

“I’ve smelled worse,” says the guard. “Trust me. Just let me see what’s in the bag.”

“If you insist,” says Joseph. He sets down the bag, unzips it, rummages around for a minute, then pulls something out. The security guard leans in to look and Joseph jabs at him with the thing in his hand. The guard collapses, convulsing. As she gets closer, Abbey sees the stun gun he’s holding. Joseph produces a pack of zip-ties and uses them to bind the security guard’s hands and feet. Jean screams from behind the skate rental counter.

“Jean, Jean, listen to me,” says Joseph. “How long have we known each other? How many months have I come to skate here? You know I would never hurt you. You know I would never hurt anybody. You have to trust me Jean. This man was going to interfere with my performance, and I couldn’t let that happen. Do you trust me Jean?”

Jean nods hesitantly. Abby runs the last few yards over to them.

“Abbey! Perfect timing!” says Joseph “I’m sorry you had to see that. He’ll be fine. Do you have your camera?” Abbey nods. “Good. Now, I want you to start filming. I’m going to get ready. And Abby, this part is important–whatever happens, do not stop filming. Promise me that. Otherwise this will all be for nothing. Look at me and say you promise.”

“I promise,” says Abbey, recoiling a little, suddenly unsure of exactly what she’s gotten herself into.

“Perhaps you could get a better vantage from up there?” He points to the railing on the floor above. Abbey nods and heads to the stairwell as Joseph turns back to his bag.

When she gets upstairs, Joseph is already on the ice, holding a bullhorn and a bright red Jerry can. Abbey gets her camera out and trains it on him as he sets the jerry can down at center ice and begins to skate laps, shouting into the bullhorn.

“My people! My people! Hear me now! Gather round! Gather round! Now is the time to come together.” Passersby begin to stop and look at him, some of them moving up to the boards. Abbey pans around the rink, then back to Joseph, who’s still shouting.

“My people! You are precious. We are all precious.” He begins to skate in tighter loops, spinning and twirling every now and then as he speaks. “We are it! We are all that there is and we are right now, right here, in this moment, together! This holy moment! I wish to share it with you all!” More people have gathered around the rink and Joseph skates by, giving them high-fives. Abbey follows him with the camera, then pans out to show shoppers on the second floor gathering around the railing, looking down.
“What is this, like, a show or something?” asks a skinny girl in a poofy vest, walking up next to Abbey and setting her bags down. Abbey nods “Cool,” says the girl, and pulls out her phone. A moment later a pimply guy joins them.

“Is this a flash mob?” he asks.

“What’s a flash mob?” asks the skinny girl.

“It’s like, this,” says the guy. Abbey doesn’t say anything. She’s focused on filming Joseph as he twirls around the rink, giving high-fives. Now people are crowding around, reaching out their hands for Joseph to touch, as though he were someone important and holy.

Abbey zooms out to get the whole rink, complete with the now sizeable crowd. The gathering has reached that point of critical mass where the central action is no longer visible to the people on the fringes, and more people are now coming upon the crowd and pressing in just to try and get a glimpse of whatever is going on. Murmurs and rumors run in surges, building, spreading, dissipating. Joseph does a few more laps, then skates back to the jerry can at center ice.

“My friends, I want you all to just feel for a moment the energy in here, around this rink. It’s palpable. It’s electric. It’s human energy. Not like this stuff.” He holds up the jerry can. “This stuff, this fuel, it has power too. We may harness that power for a time, but in time it will burn out. My whole life I have been seeking a fuel that will never burn out, and after much seeking, I have realized that I will never find such a fuel, because it is not out there to be found. I know now that I must turn inwards. I must become that which I seek. My friends, let me power you! Let me be your fuel!”

Joseph thrusts the Jerry can aloft and the crowd erupts in cheers, and now some screams. He opens the cap, takes a deep whiff and howls. The crowd howls back. Then he upends the jerry can over his head, spluttering as the gas runs down his face and soaks into his peacoat. Cheering continues, along with a newfound panic, people now pushing to get away as others from the fringe press in.

“Wait!” shouts somebody. Wait, Abbey thinks too. Wait. What exactly are we watching here? Joseph’s voice comes back to her–whatever happens, do not stop filming.

“The moment!” shouts Joseph. “The moment is an asymptote towards which our lifelines curve, always approaching but never to cross. Ladies and gentlemen, today I will cross over. Today I will enter the holy moment, and I will let it engulf me! I do not mean to scare or upset you. I only wish for you to witness reality at its brightest. I mean to inspire you. I know that you burn for what you have not, but you reserve yourselves. Every one of you could burn brighter, I know it. So now, in this moment, let me burn for you, and in doing so, I ask you this: why not be totally changed into fire?”

Abbey scans the crowd, sees others coming to the same realization that she is, some still cheering, many now shouting, and now she’s screaming too but she can’t hear her own voice as it leaves her. Then Joseph looks up at her, right into the camera, smiles, blows her a kiss and bows. He moves his hand, flicks an unseen lighter, and bursts into flame.

 

For a moment he just stands there, arms raised, letting the flames lick him, then he’s off, skating with a manic determination. He stays low, swinging his arms behind him like she’s seen speed skaters do in the olympics. The flames billow out, a cloak of orange-gold light shedding droplets of fire that sizzle on the ice in his wake.

The heat is palpable. People on the first floor start pushing their way back from the boards, and Abbey feels it on the second floor as he passes by on his way around the rink. Still, the panic is somehow calmed by Joseph’s grace as he moves, the terror replaced with a kind of awe.

“This is the dopest magic show ’ve ever seen!” Says the pimply kid. As she looks around, she sees people everywhere holding their phones up, taking their own videos of Joseph burning his way around the rink.

Someone has freed the security guard, and he’s shouting furiously into his walkie talkie, though Abbey can’t make out what he’s saying. He crouches and turns away as Joseph speeds by, then continues yelling. As Joseph comes back around he also starts to yell, though his is a deep, wordless cry–a full, complex tone, rich and pained, somewhere between operatic and horrific. It pierces through the cacophony as though it occupies a unique and pressing frequency, above the rest of the sonic landscape. The hairs prickle up and down Abbey’s neck.

Joseph, now almost entirely engulfed, draws his leg back as Abbey saw him do a week ago, then leaps up, spinning into a whirling vortex of flame that sucks in the surrounding air with a roar. The crowd cries out again and then he’s coming down, his skate catching the ice for a moment before he pitches backwards onto the rink with a hiss. There he burns, a twitching, blackened form shrouded in the conflagration. Steam from the ice mixes with the acrid smoke and rises up into the atrium, bringing with it an awful brackish scent of gas and burnt plastic and meat.

Now almost everybody is either screaming or shocked silent. Some people begin to lower their phones as they realize they’re filming a corpse. Others keep pressing in, unabashed, still recording. Security guards and a few police officers rush onto the ice, but all they do is stand around the blaze, unsure of how to handle the situation.

Oh my god!” Abbey says over and over again.

“Holy shit!” says the pimply guy, looking on with glee. The girl in the vest has her phone out and she’s filming. She sees Abbey watching her film, then looks at Abbey’s camera, the gears in her head turning visibly on her face.

“You were here filming from the beginning!” she shouts over the crowd. “Do you know him? Are you with him?”
“Uh, no,” says Abbey, shrinking at the accusation.

“I don’t believe you!” shouts the girl. “Hey! Over here! Somebody! This girl knows him!”

“No!” Abbey protests, “I don’t know him! I didn’t know him! No!” People start to turn and pay attention to this new microcosmic commotion and Abbey feels the eyes on her, the walls pressing in, suffocating. “No!” she keeps screaming. “No, I don’t!”

 

Then the urgent klaxon of the fire alarm begins and the overhead sprinkler system kicks on, flooding the scene, muting sounds and blurring eyes and lenses. The deluge acts as a great release. People’s various survival instincts begin to engage and most of them scatter, clutching their phones, covering their heads. Abbey takes one last look at Joseph’s body smouldering on the ice, then turns and runs herself, still filming, huddling over her camera to keep it dry.

As she traverses the chaos she hears breaking glass, sees people smashing through store windows, looting the displays and stocks. A middle aged man in a suit sprints from the bougie kitchen store with a rice cooker under his arm. A plus-sized woman trundles by, holding a mannequin wearing torn jeans and a retro hawaiian shirt. Another older man is struggling to drag a massage chair out of a ruined storefront. Two kids are stealing a giant RC drone, each one holding a side of the oversized box. A young couple makes out passionately against a chintzy jewelry kiosk, both of them draped in zirconia necklaces, faux-gold and copper bangles, soaked to the bone.

Then, standing right there in the center of the food court is Kathy. She’s wet, shivering, and totally bewildered, clutching an oversized cardboard cup from the Fro-Yo Palace.

“Kathy! Kathy! Over here!” Abbey calls. Kathy looks around as though she’s being hailed by some supernatural being, then appears relieved when she finally sees Abbey running up.

“Oh, Abbey! Hey! What’s going on? Was there a fire? I hope it didn’t ruin the ice skating thing.”

“It did,” says Abbey, panting.

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I was just on my way over there but I got held up at Fro-Yo Palace, and then the alarm went off, and, oh my! I just didn’t know what to do! My fro-yo is ruined too!”

“Forget it, we have to get out of here,” says Abbey. Concern spreads again across Kathy’s face.

“Abbey, what’s going on? Are you alright?”

“Yeah, just, no, yeah, people are crazy. We need to go.” As if to illustrate her point, a large bearded man smashes the Holy Donuts display case with a stool and starts devouring the jelly-filleds and boston cremes. Another old woman clambers over the counter at Cluckin’ Lovers and begins stuffing her purse with popcorn chicken.

“Oh my!” says Kathy. “Oh goodness!” Abbey takes her hand and pulls her along. Kathy comes but she keeps looking back over her shoulder at the man in his sopping hoodie, his face and beard now smeared with cream and jelly and chocolate.

 

The rest of the way out is a blur, both in Abbey’s memory and on the film later, the camera forgotten as she pulls Kathy along. Things don’t regain clarity until the autofocus takes in the grey-white sky and they’re outside being wrapped in emergency blankets and pulled into a sea of waiting service vehicles. That’s when Abbey turns off the camera and tucks it into her jacket’s inner pocket, praying nobody official will ask to see the footage. Nobody does. A short, muscular, vaguely asiatic looking EMT gives her a once over and clears her to go. She waits just past the ambulance for him to examine Kathy. Just when Abbey starts to wonder what’s taking so long, Kathy comes around the ambulance, looking chipper. The EMT glances out after her and smiles at Abbey.

“My car is in the lot over there,” she says.

“Thanks,” Abbey says, noticing now that she’s begun shaking all over.

“That doctor, mister ambulance guy, he was cute, huh? says Kathy. “I gave him your number. I said you were shy. I just figured, since that ice-skating thing didn’t work out, you know. I dunno. It could be good for you.” Abbey says nothing. “What happened with that, by the way? Did the fire alarm go off before he could do his thing or what?” Kathy presses.

“Uh, yeah, no, yeah” says Abbey. “Some guy killed himself.”

“Oh my god,” whispers Kathy, “Oh my god. Is that what all that fuss was about?”

“Yeah, he burned himself on the rink. With gas. Like one of those monks or something.”

“Oh my god, that’s horrible!” Kathy says, still in a half-whisper, as if she’s afraid of being heard by some unseen listener. “And you had your camera? Did you get it on film?

The camera in Abbey’s pocket suddenly feels heavy against her side, malignant, exuding an anxious energy. She wants to throw it out of the car but finds she cannot. She knows she will watch the tape later, over and over, always alone, and it will fill her with an indescribable feeling, not quite terror, not quite glee, mostly just an acute sense of the blood sweeping through her body, her lungs pulling at the air, her whole body smoldering with a life just beneath the surface.

“No,” says Abbey after a while. “No, I didn’t get it.”

 


Henry Whittier-Ferguson