by Martin Rose
h, how she loved the fire.
Blue into yellow, into orange and red. Her temperature ran cold like her blood, but the flame gave life, parted her lips and drew her breath in fast, hitching with anticipation. In the burn ward, she continued to play with fire, and in the haze, David Gale flinched and repelled at the sound.
The steady click-click of a hand-held lighter permeated his dreams, his nightmares; he smelled lighter fluid, saw the flame between small, feline fingers, a wide, gray eye watching him beneath her bandages.
He woke up long enough to ask her if he was dying. She laughed and pressed her soft hand on his unburnt arm. The touch reassured, soothed, and awakened ancient memories of his mother with Scarecrow in the field.
He slept without rest or satisfaction, skin like crispy fried chicken, pulled taut over his muscles and organs. He breathed in the steady rhythm that reflected his pain, breathe in, throb, breathe out, throb. He hit the morphine button, a fresh stream of opiates entered his blood, and he fell into dissatisfied sleep once more.
He dreamt of the burning house, trapped with the black-haired woman, his fire fighter uniform ablaze, until only ashes remained.
By now, David Gale understood he was not human.
They skirted his dreadful secret with gauze and Demerol. His skin pulled apart like Christmas wrapping paper, tendrils of straw visible beneath his skin — snapped strands working their way through his wounds. How long until they found him out, while he lay like a slab of cooked meat on the gurney?
His weeping skin pulsed and throbbed as he pulled back the gauze. He groaned, his naked wound exposed to the cruel air while he fumbled with the IV drip, pulling it from his skin with a hiss, his motions weak and numb with drugs.
He came face to face with the pyro, a swatch of bloody, pus-filled gauze in his fingers.
Fear bloomed; he could not stop her as she leaned over him, pushing his weak fingers away where he had torn the dressing apart. Her hair and skin, burned away, and the twisting scars of flesh peeked from a mire of bandages, covering the eye the doctors could not replace.
“You shouldn’t tear yourself up like that, you —”
She stopped and stared.
You got beneath the skin, didn’t you?
He thought it; in the next moment, he realized he’d spoken.
She reached for the button on the wall, but he summoned the strength to take her hand, snapping it out of the air.
“Don’t call them,” he hissed.
“You’ve got straw in—”
“I know. It’s me. It’s me, don’t you get it?”
She did not.
“It’s a part of me.”
She stared at the open skin, burned and melted like mozzarella on an overdone pizza, with bits of straw poking up through the surface. She extended a hand, and he felt the cool pad of her finger against the inside of him. He shuddered.
She withdrew her finger.
“Keep it secret,” he begged.
He steeled himself for screams, for the doctor and a thousand curious scalpels come to tear him apart; but to his astonishment, the pyromaniac said nothing, but pulled up a stool and sat beside him. She played with her lighter, passing her fingertips through the flames with an expression of ecstasy, her lips parted in her freakish, burned face.
He passed out.
He dreamt; a place he has never seen.
His bare toes sink into an unfamiliar earth, but he feels, deep in his blood and his marrow, that he does know it; that this grass and this sky call and pull and suck at him, want him for their own. A few steps more, and he could be there, he could be in the place his mother dared not let him venture, the place the Scarecrow could not return to.
He takes a step, one following after the other, happy to leave behind him a thousand sorrows, his mother’s tears and the Scarecrow nailed on the cross in the field, with the lopsided smile. Happy to forget the persistent stare of the Scarecrow’s mismatched eyes that found him through rain storms, through warm summer evenings while he played, and window panes as he bent over homework — his presence destroying each moment as it elapsed.
On his right, the cornfield extends into Oz, and a groaning reaches him. Dust swirls around his bare feet as he stops, and turns to confront the scarecrow by the side of the yellow brick road. A quick glance ahead of him reveals an endless line of crucified scarecrows leading into an infinite distance, all the way to Emerald City.
He moves toward it — the world eclipses, coalesces and fades, and the scarecrow calls out to him—
The pyro’s voice.
He turned his head and saw her. She wore a wig, whose loose hair clung to her face, and she looked tired as she leaned over him. She looked younger without the bandages covering her burns and scars; he could see enough unburnt skin to know she had once been beautiful. Her nose remained intact, but her left eye was gone; above that, a rising surface of ropy scar tissue that moved into her scalp.
He didn’t ask her to see where she had brought him; he was back in the house in Kansas.
What had compelled her to bring him to this place? She didn’t know about the harsh violence of this world in the Midwest, the sowing, the reaping, the scarecrow nailed in every field and the worst one yet to come, the straw man of his youth: The Scarecrow.
She reached up and pulled the hair at her cheek, thick and black. It slid from her scalp, and he watched, mute, until her head was naked beneath the weak light of the bare bulb.
“You passed out, and I put my ear against your chest. What I heard was a heart; but not a human heart.”
Her voice trembled.
“Not a human heart. Something more fragile, packed in sawdust and straw. I took your chart, and all the pages, and when I saw your grandmother’s name —”
“Gale . . .”
The word escaped from him in a sigh. He turned away from her, thinking about the straw beneath his skin, harboring a thousand memories he could not voice — the curse of that name, and the Scarecrow. He did not have the words to express a youth endured as a stranger in his own home, a suspicious interloper of Oz blood, with his mother’s eyes, but not her husband’s heart.
“It’s not a fairy tale. It . . . claims you. Takes you. Destroys you. You call this straw life? How long do you think my lifespan is?” He touched the bandages, where the pain flared beneath his fingers, and he turned away, biting his lower lip.
The pyro flicked the lighter open, and the flame licked upwards. She enjoyed it with her eyes.
“When I was ten, I set a chicken coop on fire. It happened by accident, and I never told anyone about it. I began to look differently at fire, and all it was capable of—and it seemed an itch I could not scratch, I thought about those bright, glowing embers whenever my life was heading in the wrong direction. I was never abused, or beaten, or hurt, I don’t take drugs and I don’t even drink. Some people are doctors, or artists, or scientists—but I love fire.”
Her hand moved over the burnt and coarse surface of her scalp, where the skin was mottled and distressed.
“I have never belonged here,” she spoke with a burst of passion. “I have never belonged in this boring, ordinary world, and I said to myself, what kind of person puts out fires? I imagined you were a soulless sort, an empty-headed fool, set to extinguish everything I set alight.”
With a shaking voice she described her failed suicide attempt by fire, her crushing disappointment to encounter David in the smoke, pulling her through the square of light and back to the life she disavowed.
“If you’re going to save my life, make it worth the effort — take me to Oz; take me to the Witch, or I’ll set the world on fire.”