Nina’s hand flashed outward, breaking her out of her daydream. It moved almost as if by its own volition, for which she was grateful. A yelp escaped her lips as her fingers wrapped around the dishcloth. She had let the corner of it settle too close to the burner. The fabric had come alight. Nina tossed it into the sink. Moving swiftly, she turned on the water and pulled the faucet head out on its cord. She smothered the flame with its flow. Nina brought her hand to her chest. She could feel her heart pounding.
Fire terrified Nina. It always had, as far back as she could remember. It frightened her so deeply that she had refused to learn how to cook for years. Even now, her skills in that area were lacking, which was why she subsisted on a diet of take-out, boxed meals, raw produce, and grilled cheese. Her mom worried about her, but Nina thought she ate pretty well. She certainly ate healthier than some of her friends, with their frequent runs for fast food and consistent consumption of junk food.
Nina slumped back against the counter. She took several deep, slow breaths, her eyes focused on the pan on the stove the whole time. The coil of the burner glowed a vicious, hateful red. At least she didn’t have a gas stove. She couldn’t bear the thought of having an open flame in her home. Even briefly pondering that thought brought her heart rate back up, forcing her to breath deeply once more.
She smelled burning again. Her eyes flitted about the room, searching for the source. It was her sandwich. She grabbed the spatula to flip it. She signed. One side was now scorched black. That happened to her far more often than she cared to admit. Her brain liked to wander off along various meandering paths. This was an advantage when she was trying to discover a new poem hidden somewhere in the recesses of her mind, but it was less so when she was cooking, cleaning, or, really, doing anything on which she needed to focus.
Focus was not Nina’s strength. Sometimes she felt like she hardly ever got anything done. Here it was, nearly dinnertime, and she was just getting around to her first meal of the day. She hadn’t finished any of the poems she had started. She hadn’t folded her laundry, or vacuumed, or cleaned yesterday’s dishes. This was her day off. She was supposed to get things done. A spark arose in her chest, but she tamped it down. Getting angry at herself wouldn’t accomplish anything.
The microwave beeped, bringing Nina out of her thoughts. She propped the door open to stop it before sliding the spatula under her sandwich. Nina grunted. The bread wasn’t black, but it was darker than Nina found ideal. She plated her food — plated, she thought, as though she was on a cooking show; she laughed internally at her own verb — and carried it to her table. She had to push aside a few loose papers to set down her plate and bowl.
Scraps and stacks of paper covered many of the surfaces in Nina’s apartment, like leaves fallen from a tree. Only the kitchen counter was spared. Nina liked it this way, even if it was a source of some embarrassment when she entertained. Whenever she cleaned it up she found herself unable to find anything. With her papers scattered about, she just had to visualize a location in the apartment in order to find the right notes or line of text, both mentally and physically. Ask her to organize it all and nothing made sense anymore.
Nina picked up a blue sticky note from the table to ponder while she stirred some of the heat out of her soup. She didn’t know how she always managed to microwave her soup either too long or not long enough. When she’d picked it up, the blue sticky note had seemed unfamiliar, but now she remembered it. It was just a list of words she wanted to work into poetry somehow: conjecture, malfeasance, indomitable, pejorative, orthogonal. The list made no sense. That wasn’t how poetry worked anyway. Not good poetry; not for Nina. When she found a good poem, it just flowed.
An acrid smell insinuated itself into her nostrils. Nina wrinkled her nose. Burning? Again? She ran back to the kitchen. Non, all of the burners were off. The dishcloth was properly doused. Besides, the smell had faded as she’d left the table. Perplexed, Nina rushed back into the dining room. Her heart beat like a hummingbird trapped in her chest. Had her cellphone overheated, left charging for too long? She hardly ever used it. Had the building heater malfunctioned? The thought of her apartment aflame brought her to the verge of tears. All of her work was here, exposed and fragile.
A thin tendril of smoke clung to the corner of Nina’s sandwich. She blinked in disbelief. She picked it up. Grey, wispy smoke poured from the bottom edge. There was no visible glow of flame. Nina brushed hesitantly at the smoking bread. Black ash fell to her plate. The smoke ceased. Nina cocked her head. That was odd. That was the side she had removed from the grill first. It should have been the cooler side. She should have noticed the smoke sooner, if nothing else. The bread was cool to the touch.
Nina didn’t understand physics all that well and she would never pretend to do so, but she knew that all kinds of weird things happened that a person without the appropriate knowledge would struggle to explain. This was, obviously, one of those things. It made her anxious. Of course it did. Smoke meant fire, and in this case it was a fire she hadn’t even perceived. Nevertheless, everything was fine. It’s fine, she repeated. No harm done. Nina allowed herself a long, controlled exhalation. She pushed her anxieties to the back of her mind as best she could.
That didn’t actually work. Not immediately. It took time, as she ate her sad little meal, for her wandering mind to find a path that didn’t leap back to that anxiety. Yet she did find it, eventually. Her food disappeared from her plate. The world faded from her perception.
Without being much aware of her actions, Nina moved from the dining table to her work desk. Truthfully, they were both writing surfaces to Nina, just as they were both eating surfaces on occasion, but only the desk held sheets of fresh paper. Nina pulled one off of a pile. She moved a paper with a few scribbled words on it to the side. She wasn’t happy with those words now, so she abandoned them. Nina took up her favorite pen.
There is something intimidating about a blank piece of paper. Nina had found this to be even more true back when she’d entertained the idea of being a visual artist. The first few lines were the hardest part. It wasn’t until she had something to build off of that she could truly begin. The same held true for poetry, but in a different way.
What would she build upon tonight? A single concept kept crawling toward the front of her mind. It was one she fought every time it tried to bring itself forth. Fire. She hated fire. Thinking about it too much or too hard made her feel physically ill. Her stomach began to swirl and her muscles vibrated. Why, then, was the path to fire so readily tread by her poetic mind?
She knew the answer. Well, she knew an answer. The more you think of a thing, the easier it becomes to think about. It’s just like any other sort of practice. Nina thought about fire far too often. If she could only train her brain to think more frequently about something else, her poetry would be a lot less stressful. Over the years, though, she had become distressingly adept at visualizing flames. She could see them burning in a hearth, merrily eating at the wood. That, at least, was positive. She could see them spitting out of that hearth, though, and chewing into the carpet. She could see them licking out of the power outlets on her walls. Springing out of her laptop. Curling around the edges of her papers, tossing their bright embers left and right to consume pile after pile until the fire ate everything, all of her work, her home. Her.
Heat prickled across Nina’s face as though she were facing the flames in reality, but a glance around the room assured her of her safety. Breathing heavily, Nina decided to challenge herself. She wouldn’t fight the fire. She would use it instead. She would write the fire. Maybe if she did it well she could alleviate some of this hold it had on her. She touched her pen to the paper.
What flowed from her pen was not poetry, not in the traditional sense of the word. She knew after the first few lines that she wouldn’t be sharing this with anyone else. That didn’t matter, though, because at least she was writing something. It was a collection of words, written in Nina’s artful script, arrayed on the page in a haphazard yet balanced manner. She began with words obviously evoking fire: flame, heat, smoke, burn, spark, crackle; all the things she had been afraid to even write or speak for so long. The she moved further with her associations, the words becoming less and less obvious: lava, hearth, ardent, lightning, on into more and more distantly related terms. When her language failed her she pulled from the bits of others that she knew. When words failed entirely she began to draw and sketch the flames. They curled up the sides of the paper, lapping up against the words she had written, at times consuming them. Swirling flames wrapped around the page, outlining it in black ink.
Smoke drifted across Nina’s vision. At first she thought it was an illusion, something drawn up out of the depths of her imagination. Then she smelled it. Her heart was already slamming against her ribcage from the fear and excitement of writing what she had so long forbidden herself. Her head jerked frantically left and right as she searched for the source of the smoke. She found it on her desk. A sheaf of paper shone with a sunset glow peeking out from between the individual sheets. White smoke rolled out of the edges. Nina yelped. The top of the piled had just begun to blacken, as though the very center of it had begun to burn.
Nina froze. What in the world? All of her muscles tensed, ready for instruction from her brain, but since none arrived they served only to hold her there, locked in place. She needed those papers. There were actual poems in there, amidst mental meanderings and tiny sketches and even a short story. She had to save them. But how? They were past saving, with a fire burning at their core. That wasn’t even possible. Fire needed oxygen. It didn’t just spontaneously ignite in the center of a dense stack of paper.
If she couldn’t save that stack she would have to sacrifice it to save the other papers on her desk. She grabbed her trash can — which was full of tissues and wrappers, not anything poetic — and swept the burning art off the side of her desk. It was hot to the touch, but her fingers came away unharmed. She felt lucky it had been on the edge of her desk and not at the center. She felt lucky she had been near enough, and not in another room.
How had the fire started? She wonder this as she rushed the can into her kitchen. The flames continued to thrive. They burned brighter as the sheaf spread apart, exposing them to oxygen. She pulled the hose out of the sink as far as it would go. She sprayed. The water steamed. For a moment, it seemed almost as though the flames burned brighter, fighting against the water. Finally the fire’s strength failed. The water won out. The glow faded away, leaving the kitchen cold and dark. Nina blinked. There were tears in her eyes.
A flick of the switch brought light back into the room, but not warmth. The trash can held the remains of the stack of paper. The pure white of the edges and corners of some of the sheets mocked her. Their centers were gone. The empty feeling in Nina’s chest mirrored their loss. She felt hollow, like she had lost everything. Rationally, she knew this wasn’t the case. She had binders in her guest bedroom full of other works. She had notes scattered all around the apartment. And perhaps more importantly, she still had her mind.
She wondered, and not for the first time, if any of that really mattered. It wasn’t like she was actually doing anything with her poetry, or her writing, or her sketches. Her father didn’t really “get it,” so even though he praised her and encouraged her, his words felt hollow. Her mother had always been insightful, before she passed. Both of them had long encouraged her, told her she could and should get published. Outwardly, she professed that to be her goal. Internally she was a storm of anxiety, indecision, and fear of inadequacy.
Nina left the trash can on the kitchen floor. She returned to her desk to try to discern what was there that could have caused the fire. The answer most readily arriving at the forefront of her thoughts was the unhelpful “nothing.” That couldn’t be true, so Nina inspected the desk. There was a blackened ring on the desk where the fire had touched it. Her laptop sat innocently on the opposite corner of the desk. It wasn’t even turned on. She checked. It was cool to the touch. Her lamp was closer to the side of the incident. That still placed it several inches away. Like her laptop, the lamp wasn’t even on. She had been working by the overhead light in the room.
Nevertheless, Nina unplugged both devices. The fire needed an origin. The phrase “spontaneous combustion” floated through her thoughts. She dismissed it. Even if that was a real thing, it referred to people, not inert stacks of paper. She looked up at the ceiling, as though something might have dripped down from there to cause a fire. Nothing. Her memory told her the flames had started inside the stack, or at least below it. Feeling silly, she ducked under the desk. The wood was unmarred.
Nina slumped into her chair. She didn’t know what else to look for. By all evidence the fire had no source. That made no sense, of course, yet she didn’t know what other conclusion she could draw. She began to pick up the notes and papers covering the desk. She slid them into the cardboard box she kept next to the desk. That way, if there was another fire, she would be able to grab them and move quickly. With the papers gone, the desk looked barren. She still saw no source for the fire.
The papers scattered about the rest of her house drew her thoughts. They were exposed. Vulnerable. Nina took the box to them. Meticulously, she brought them into its care. She sorted them as she went, telling herself that she would remember where she had put them tomorrow. Past experience told her otherwise. She chose to ignore it. She brought the box into her bedroom, where it could be quickly accessed. She felt the fatigue gnawing at her bones. It was growing stronger than her anxiety. Picking up had taken the majority of her remaining energy. She felt drained.
Nina forced herself to brush her teeth and prepare for bed. She was worried about her other works, the important ones — the ones she thought might actually be good — but she didn’t know what she could do to protect them. The thought of removing them from the house fluttered through her brain. There was no safer place, other than perhaps a safe deposit box at a bank. No bank was open at this hour.
Drowsiness descended upon Nina like a metal blanket. It weighed down her body and her mind, dragging at her thoughts so steadily that they began to fail. Her inner voice stopped making sense. It expressed doubt. She began to wonder if there had even been a fire. It made no sense. It just seemed so impossible, now that she was more removed from it, temporally.
In bed, she pulled the sheet and the comforter over her body. The air felt too cool. Nina wanted to be warm and comfortable. She shivered, despite the weight of the bedding. The sheets weren’t yet warmed by her body heat. She didn’t bother setting an alarm. Tomorrow was, miraculously, another day with no commitments. She could sleep as long as her body wanted.
Nina awoke warm. She no longer shivered. Warmth surrounded her, encompassed her. It felt good, like being outside on a hot summer day. She smiled. Heat prickled across her face. Her smile faltered. That wasn’t right. She opened her eyes. An orange glow washed across the ceiling. Eyes wild, she looked down. She opened her mouth to scream. Hot, smoke-filled air streamed into her lungs. Her scream turned into a cough. She clawed at the sheets. They dissolved under her fingertips. Her entire bed was alive with flames. She twisted, her legs flailing. The flames licked at her flesh. She tried to roll out of bed, but the remains of the sheets tangled around her. She fell, hard, to the floor. The fire was there, too, twisting into the carpet. Tears began to roll down Nina’s face. They boiled away before they reached her chin. Nina’s body shook. Her brain vibrated inside her skull. Frantically, she willed her limbs into motion, but they would not obey. Despite the light of the flames, a darkness clawed at the edges of her vision. She managed to pushed her arm forward, the beginning of a crawl. The darkness crept inward, further and further, until her vision and her consciousness were no more.
When she came back into consciousness, her apartment was gone. Black and grey ash covered her body. “We’ve got a survivor!” a voice called. A firefighter. He knelt over her. “Miss. Miss, are you alright?”
Nina didn’t want to answer. Her lungs did it for her, though, convulsing with a hacking series of coughs. She couldn’t stop it. She felt wet droplets splatter onto her chin and chest. The firefighter shouted. He beckoned to someone Nina couldn’t see from the ground. Nina’s eyes rolled around, not from the coughing, but out of a desire to see. Everything was gone. Her bed, her clothes, her home. Her work. No, she was not alright. She would never be alright.