The Burning Man21:48

The Burning Man

Every town has its horror stories, its haunts and demons. Most of these stories consist of an asylum escapee with the telltale Freudian Oedipus complex or some distraught mother who haunts a particular house where she drowned her two infant children. Although fictional in some aspects, most of the events are based on some half-truth that stemmed from the unimaginable.

I grew up in a tiny coastal town in Maryland. It is a quaint place lined with family owned shops and restaurants, never knowing the familiar buzz of a large franchise. The kind of town where walking down the street and making occasional eye contact is never a source of unease, as every face is a familiar one. The only source of discomfort emanates from the few dilapidated bed and breakfasts, symbolizing the town’s only failure. I lived there all throughout my grade school years until I moved away to college. A few years later, my parents finally decided to leave for the thrill of downsizing to a small loft in the city.

This tiny town, like many others, had the wonderful charm of allowing everyone to know each other’s business. There are the small things: who kissed whom, who was expecting a baby or, with great scandal, a divorce, but the greatest of the small town talk has and always will be that of Murray Hill.

Murray Hill is a large, steep incline at the tail end of the main road. It had originally been set aside as a lookout area for non-existent tourists to catch the most spectacular glimpse of the ocean. The best time to go being at sunrise or set when the horizon is bathed in red and pink and orange. As a child, I grew to hear many variations of what happened on Murray Hill, some more sinister than others and the only confirmed truth being the story’s end.

The story always begins with an unnamed boy who grew up in the town. The name changes from story to story and who tells it. I’ve heard the boy’s name change from Peter to Paul or even to Mark. I, however, will call him John. John is always described as being commonly average. He had brown hair and eyes with skin that was neither too light nor too dark. His childhood was common, a few friends, no bullies, and average grades in school. When he grew to be a man there was only one woman, and, when he left to go to a University, he took her as his wife. He graduated school a few years later, moved into a house down the street from where he grew up, for his mother’s peace of mind, and began to work at his father’s law firm. His first few years passed quickly, his only accomplishments being the shuffling of the sparse papers around his desk and the lining of his pens in neat vertical rows, a habit he had taken to in law school. It was an uneventful career but a career nonetheless and, for that, he was minimally grateful, at least until an idle Tuesday in mid-June.

John awoke to the incursion of a red haze penetrating the stifling heat of the early morning. The white shirt he wore had been soaked throughout the feverish night, muscles straining behind the now opaque linen. The ceiling fan above turned slowly, its creaking echo bouncing off the walls of the master suite as John tossed the sheets to the side and placed two feet on the mahogany floor boards. A warmth greeted him as he padded along the floor to the window, pushing it fully open as it yawned the morning air into the room. The air was not refreshing, nor was it the cool chill he was aching for. Instead, John was met with a stagnant humidity that filled his lungs with a heated mist. Coughing, he fought the urge to step away from the gaping hole, placing his hands against the peeling yellowed-white of the window sill.

He leaned forward once he caught his breath, and sighed, the premature lines on his face etching deeper crevices at the discomfort of renewed warmth against his already suffocating skin. The weather had always been finicky in this damn town but never so hot, John mused. Even when he was a young boy and the town had recorded its hottest summer ever had, it had never been this warm. He ran his hands through his sweaty brown locks and placed a hand on his hip.

“What a start to a fantastic day,” John muttered sarcastically.

The office was going to be stifling because of the old building's lack of proper ventilation.

His wife stirred softly from the rumpled sheets, burying her face in the pillow and drawing John’s attention to the bed. As he turned to make his way to the bathroom, he caught sight of her long, brown hair cascading off the bed, tinged red from the early sun. He couldn’t help but think, as he eyed his wife in the mirror above the porcelain sink, that he much preferred blondes.

The walk to work was atrocious and he had managed to soak the entirety of his shirt in the exertion. Climbing the winding stairs to his office and dashing through the door to his private quarters, he tossed his briefcase to the side and sunk into the black leather chair. Placing his palms upon the oak desk, he gently danced his fingers along the row of black pens before stopping at the fifth one. He slid his index finger down its glossy exterior before pressing it into his palm, striking the action and eliciting a click as the pen moved into place. He peered over his hand and across the office toward Audrey.

Audrey was the paralegal at his father’s firm and sat, with her right leg across her left as she softly bounced her right foot, at the reception desk. Squinting, he could make out the red dress and black heels she was wearing through a gap in his office door. Following the curve of her hip, he fixated on the wispy blonde curl that brushed her neck, having tumbled from her current up-do. Transfixed, he watched the curl move in time with her bouncing.

His father entered right on time, half past nine, and he heard Audrey’s familiar, lilting voice greet the elder man.

“The damn loon come in?”

His father had pushed the door open further, his grubby face leering through the crack.

“No. He called earlier to say he was running late, something about the bus not working and it being another sign—”

John hadn’t finished before his father chimed in, “Tell him to go to the news, better yet the psych ward. God knows we don’t have time for his nonsense…”

A bead of sweat formed on John’s temple, sliding its way down the curve of his jaw and clinging to his chin. He watched the droplet fall to the floor, shattering into millions of tiny reflective shards before evaporating almost instantaneously.

“Did you hear me!?”

His father’s puffy face was inches from his. A knock rung at the door.

“John, Mr. Jenkins is here. He says it’s urgent.”

“Send him in.”

John straightened in his chair, looking past his father.

“Remember boy, the news,” his father muttered, straightening his tie before nodding to Jenkins on his way out.

“Good mornin’ my brother, John.”

John pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t have the patience. Shaking his head slightly, he tugged a smile onto his lips that didn’t manage to reach his eyes.

“Good morning, Mr. Jenkins.”

The two men shook hands cordially.

“How can I help you?”

It didn’t take long for the sun-weathered man to start onto his weekly rant: the stray cats on the streets were really shape-shifting women and aliens had destroyed his petunias. There was always some variation in the tales and it often provided John with some semblance of entertainment throughout the dull day.

He always listened through the entire story, or pretended to, before following his father’s instructions and politely suggesting that, perhaps, this news would be better posted in the local newspaper or on the television. Better to get the word out, right? The man, his large cowboy hat flopping about his ears, would nod vigorously and thank John for his wisdom and time. Before long, John would receive a call from Tammy, the lead reporter at the local news station, ranting about how John should stop telling the imbecile to distract her staff with his hallucinations. John closed his eyes briefly, picturing Tammy in his head.

She was blonde too.

He once saw her out swimming once, her pale hair flowing through the ocean in the dim light of dawn. He’d watched for an hour from the trees. An unfamiliar ache had started to form across John’s chest. He ran his hand across it, feeling the sweat soaked sticky pattern of his shirt.

“You alright?”

John’s attention re-focused, red spots flashing before his eyes.

“Oh... yes. Yes of course.”

Crackling, like the crinkling of paper, began to grow to a dull rumble somewhere from behind his eyes and John found himself dripping sweat onto his expensive chair and desk.

Abruptly, he stood, making sure to place his pen in the proper position before informing Mr. Jenkins that he had another situation to attend, leaving a gaping loon and confused blonde in his wake as he tore from the office.

The moment his Italian leather clad feet tapped the concrete a wave of intense burning assaulted him. Stumbling, John pulled the tie free from his neck and held to the building for fear of falling over. He shook. His muscles thrust into spasms so intense they flexed with the force.

His head was pounding and he gagged, choking on bile as his stomach twisted and churned with malaise. Wiping strands of hair from his eyes, he looked down the street and caught sight of the most magnificent flash of pale yellow, disappearing into the grocery.

Burying his hands into his pockets, John resisted the heats brides to un-encumber his fingers from the dark blue fabric and, in revolt, forced his hands deeper into the folds. His shirt and tie had both been undone before crossing the threshold of the grocery store, carts strewn on either side. Ignoring them, he made his way down the aisles, his shoes slapping the linoleum as he turned each corner, manically searching for the sweet sight he’d caught before. Stopping at the candy aisle, he saw her. She couldn’t have been more than seven and tiny, her fragile hand wrapped in her mother’s. He could tell that the little creature had once worn a braid, her hair spilling about her angular face in disarray in what, he assumed, had been woes of child’s play. He pressed himself into the harsh metal of the shelves, peering around the corner to eye her flimsy pink top and sandals from a distance. The mother, a common brunette, told her daughter that she was going to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for her younger brother and that she would leave her here with the candy, if she promised to only pick one item from the plethora of sweets before her. Nodding enthusiastically, the child complied. John could hear the squeaking of the cart wheels down the aisle and, frozen, he came to the realization she was going to pass him. He clung to the shelf, for what absurd reason he could not fathom, sealing his eyes shut. The squeaking grew to an up-heaving crescendo before… it began to fade. Opening his eyes, he saw the mother two aisles over, having passed him without a second thought.

His hands shook as he chanced a glance into the aisle. The little girl now stood in front of the chocolate, humming to herself. He pushed from the brazen metal and began to walk down the long rows of candies.

There were lollipops, taffies, sweets soft and hard, sweet and sour. His hands were still buried deep in his pockets, knuckles white. She was so close now, he could smell the sweet aroma of shampoo she used: floralistic. The girl swayed, surveying her options, as John slid into place behind her, his heart pulsating so quickly, he felt he might faint. His hand unconsciously slide from his pocket, reaching for the beauty before him, grazing a shoulder and then the porcelain column of her neck. The little girl jumped and spun to face the unwelcome intrusion. John’s hand faltered, but only for a moment, his fingers tracing the edges of the heat induce frizz of the child’s hair. Her blue eyes growing wide in terror and a whimper rising in her throat.

Before it could swell and breech the surface of audibility, John had turned, racing toward the freezer section. He tugged open the nearest door and, to his sheer disappointment, he was not met with chilling, brisk wind on his soaked shirt and pants, but only a gust of hot air. He growled in anger as he continued pulling open each freezer door, slamming them shut in a growing fit of anger and desperation when met with nothing but rancid heat.

The aching feeling had grown to an itch, a deep itch that lied somewhere beyond his muscles and in the framework of his bones. The sensation changing, not only in severity, but size as it stretched across his broad shoulders and rolled down the curvature of his spine. He stalked from the store and out onto the pavement. Faintly, he could hear the voice of the grocer and mother behind him, calling out his name as he disappeared down the street.

The world was spinning and all he knew was that he needed relief. He meandered in the direction of somewhere he knew from his childhood, yet, he couldn’t quite recall where. The only thing he was aware of was the sun and its red iris, leering into the very core of his being.

John staggered up an incline, grabbing for purchase on the small shrubs and grasses around his feet. He could hardly see and his eyes stung with the sheer amount of sweat falling from his brow. Beyond the point of rational thought, John began to tear at the remainder of his clothing, as some distant idea of rationality informed him that heat was perpetuated by external layers.

Once bared, he fell to his knees and bowed his head. If he could have spoken, or done anything besides release guttural screams and groans of torture, perhaps he would have prayed, perhaps he was trying to. Placing his hand upon the dried ground, John straightened himself, rocking back to sit on his feet. A serenity wash over him, his eyes rolling back into his skull. A voice called his name, speaking of relief and hazy dew-filled nights. All was silent for what appeared like hours before John’s eyes returned to focus with a renewed vigor and a smile much like a cat's: all teeth and all malice.

Without a sound, he grabbed the flesh of his chest and began to pull. It tore with a sickening wet squelch, hanging loosely by a string of muscle. Laughing wildly, he plucked it, his audience, the sun, casting him an approving smile as he began to play Beethoven’s fifth upon his flesh. He stripped himself to the waist, a swelling in the internal music guiding his quickened pace. His flesh peeled, resembling shaved meat at a market, and lay limply at his knees. The ground before him was slick with blood, his veins bursting and bulging from strands of muscle.

By now, the grocer had alerted the authorities and a pair of officers were beginning to make their way down the road and toward the hill, their sirens blaring crudely. John could hear them approaching.

He needed more air.

Quickly, he dug his right index finger into the muscle of his chest, feeling his left arm pop as the muscle sheered away. The skin had been much easier to do away with, but the muscle was sturdy. John pulled with all his might, seeing each tendon in his arms strain with the effort until finally... His chest gave way and the meat, hot and solid, slid down his stomach, resting in his lap. He smiled, delirious happy at the soft chill he felt and looked inside the widening hole. What lay beneath the pound of knotted flesh was not the typical organs and bones of a man’s body, but fire. Flames were lapping at the air above and were taking the fuel gladly. As they began to swell with life, John fell to his side, unable to bear the heat of his own internal desire. Being so dry, it didn't take long for the grass to inherit his flames and spread them like a disease to the shrubs and trees around.

The police arrived shortly after the inferno began, jumping from their cars and clambering their way to the top of the steep mound, but it was far too late. The entire hill was ablaze with life, crackling and hissing at the intruders, swiping at them with reared claws and gnashing teeth.

The younger officer tried to crawl beneath the flames, and he saw John in the center. The creature was too strong. It sunk its teeth into his uniform, chasing the breath from his lungs and leaving his partner, the seasoned veteran, to pull the boy back.

Telling him to stay put, the older officer fled down the hill, radioing the fire department over crackling static. Young and reckless, the boy crept closer to the fire, unable to tear his eyes from the man within. The sight he saw was one of abject horror.

John, his lungs pressing from underneath exposed ribs, continued the monotonous tearing of flesh from muscle, muscle from bone. His dry laughs racing along the hillside, surrounding the officer with their childlike glee and yet chilling him to his core, goosebumps rising along his arms despite the scolding burn. The boy retched, his eyes shedding involuntary tears. Then, without warning, the fire ceased, leaving only bleeding, raw earth as its surviving kin.

The reports of the fire were vague as no one of note had seen the display, only its charred remains. Although little is known about the incident, certain facts are evident. The earth on Murray Hill is still black to this day, not one plant nor animal has touched the land since. John’s body was said to have melted into the earth, as no remains were found - the fire being extinguished along with his last breath.

When a police report was needed, the station turned to the only eye witness of the account. Having to write something, anything in the report sitting on his dimly lit desk, the young officer picked a pencil from the mug to his left and poised it above the paper. He only managed to write one sentence before turning to his resignation papers: he burned from the inside out.