An attempt to squeeze some fiction out of this dull, unimaginative mind.
The house is eerily quiet.
The only sound that reverbs throughout the hallways and into my room is the faint noise of a crackling fire, with its occasional snaps, coming from the living room fireplace. Someone downstairs is humming a strange tune I can’t recognize: it’s in a sad, minor key, a bittersweet medley of notes.
I shiver, glancing outside the window. Frost creeps along the edges of the window pane like ivy; it seems like only yesterday the air was smooth and almost silky to the touch. Now it makes me wince at the prospect of having to step foot outside. I press my frigid hands to my cheeks, willing them to be warm again.
The humming is getting louder. I grab a jacket from my bedside table and head downstairs. The hallway connected to my bedroom has no functioning lights, but I’ve walked down it so many times that I know exactly where to place my feet, which creaky boards to avoid, the loose nail to watch out for. My hand skims the wall to my right as I walk. I brush my fingers against the first frame, a portrait of my brother and I when we were younger, against the second, one of our entire family, and the last, my father in a lone shot, looking off into the distance, a grim, forlorn expression swept across his face. Three paintings. Three’s the magic number, always.
Oddly my toes are met with an unfamiliar sensation — a plush new rug that they sink into with each step. I descend the stairs, and to my surprise, there’s a stranger hunched over in front of our fireplace. He’s about the same size as my father, a bit larger in stature. A long, thin gray coat hangs loosely from his shoulders. Though his face is turned away, his silhouette triggers a flicker of familiarity within me; I’ve seen this man before. His eyes watch the fire intently.
“Um… hello,” I manage, hesitantly.
He hums, ignoring me, his eyes fixated on the fire with such intense fascination I can’t help but glance at it myself. Red-orange flames greedily lick the sides of the metal grate containing them. Billows of thick, black smoke erupt from their midst.
Wait. I take a closer look — there’s an empty cavity in the grate where the logs should be. There’s no wood burning; in fact, there’s nothing in the fireplace at all but the flames themselves. How…?
Startled, I approach him with caution, placing one foot right in front of the other. Peering at him in closer range, I notice something. He’s not just humming and looking at the fire, he’s humming at the fire. It moves accordingly with every inflection of his voice, it dances to every note.
Fire, if not tamed, will destroy you. I hear a voice, hoarse and resonant, but the stranger’s mouth betrays no movement. Did I just imagine it? His gaze remains unwavering. Without warning, he whirls around and faces me.
My heart drops.
His eyes are pitch black coals, with tiny fires alight in the dark depths of his pupils. There’s something else within them, a frenzied, unsettled look, as if he’s known no rest in his entire life. Fear, almost palpable, emanates from his eyes like noxious fumes wafting off of a gas leak.
A pounding sensation instantly seizes my temples. Electrifying pain shoots up the sides of my head, sending searing heat across my eyelids. A high-pitched, blood-curdling scream erupts from my mouth as all rational thought flees my mind, replaced by a pain so intense I feel like I might black out. I can’t think or see straight. Dimly I feel my knees buckling, suddenly unable to hold up my body weight, and they meet the cold marble floor with an abruptness that leaves my head spinning. All I can focus on are the waves of acute pain which come crashing down on my consciousness again and again. The pulsating heat of a fire that’s steadily growing larger behind him.
I watch in horror as the roaring fire, which has now nearly quadrupled in size, leaps out of the fireplace and onto the wooden floor of the living room, greedily inching its way towards me and consuming everything in its path. It’s as if it’s taken on a mind of its own. The air around me has turned thick and black, like tar. I gasp for breath, but all that comes down my lungs is smoke.
The last thing I see is the man in front of me being consumed by the fire, convulsing as it overtakes him, the acrid smell of burnt flesh everywhere.