by Sarena Ulibarri
By the time Mom ran into the room the flames were always gone, so I quit calling for her. Now I sit and watch the floorboards curl into ash, sit and watch the fire demons climb out, orange tails sparking and flicking, black claws leaving sear marks where they grasp the wood to pull themselves from the flames below. I watch the fire demons creep out my door and into the house. I don't know what they do out there. I don't want to know.
The fire started when I was sent to bed early one night, in trouble for not eating my dinner, for telling my parents what I thought of them, for being “a general pain,” Mom said. I sat upright in the dark bed, my stomach boiling with anger and spite. The acid mixture churned, tried to rise into my throat. I swallowed it down, but it was too much and I started to cough. A deep red coal burned its way up and flew from my mouth to my bedroom floor, where it burned and sizzled on the wooden floorboards. The coal sank through the floor and the fire was born. The whole room glowed orange as flames sneaked through the wooden slats. I didn't see the fire demons that first time; I called for help as the flames spread.
But the orange glow receded with the sound of Mom's footsteps, and when she opened my door the flames had disappeared, leaving gray ash on the edges of each floorboard, gray smoke rising through the air. Mom didn't even notice as she stepped across the charred floor. She walked right through the smoke without clearing it away.
Mom sat on the bed as I babbled my story. She comforted me, told me it was all a dream, hugged me and called me her brave boy and her honey bear, as if an hour before I hadn't called her vulgar things and thrown her food away.
The second time it happened she was not so patient. I had been sent to bed again for playing too roughly with the family dog, a ratty dumb thing I had always hated. I stormed into my bedroom and got under the covers with my shoes still on, fuming. This time I felt the heat before I saw the flames. By the time I looked out from under the covers, the boards had burned enough that I could see the fingers of flame whipping back and forth. The fire's roar filled the room. Then the fire demons emerged, peeking out at first, and then climbing through the floorboards, knocking away the ash with their tails, flames reflected in their buggy red eyes. I screamed and once again the flames receded by the time Mom opened the door. She didn't sit on the bed this time, didn't stroke my hair and comfort me. She stood in the doorway and asked, “What is it?” and when I told her, or tried to, she sighed, said, “Joshua Thomas, you are too old for this,” and closed the door.
After that, I let the floor burn. I watched the fire demons creep out and dance off through the house, and in the morning I would see their black mouse-sized footprints where they tiptoed across the kitchen table, across the TV screen. Mom didn't notice them, but Dad, I saw him looking at them, saw him try to rub one of the footprints away. It wouldn't, of course, but I think he knew that.
Now there's a hole in my floor so big I have to scoot around next to my closet to get to the door. The floorboards are gone, and during the day the hole smoulders like a campfire. At night the fire begins deep and low. Sometimes it doesn't rise to the surface, but when it does, I sit and watch the flames dance, watch the fire demons emerge.
Last night I wasn't sent to bed, I came on my own. Mom sent my friends away, called them bad influences, asked me whatever happened to those nice boys I used to play ball with. Dad sat in his chair, pulling his newspaper close to his face. As Mom yelled, he shifted awkwardly and cleared his throat as if he were trying to swallow a red coal too. I ran to my room. I slammed the door and stood with my back against it. The flames were already churning in the pit, leaping higher than ever before, touching the ceiling, and singeing the sheets of my bed.
Then from the pit came one single fire demon, as big as me, with eyes like overripe cherries, tail like a fiery whip. I moved out of its way and let it out through my door. I crouched on the edge of the fire pit, cowering behind my door. I imagined the fire demon burning down the whole house, imagined my parents' faces as the walls caved in and the ceiling burned. Despite my contempt, that image gave me no pleasure. I panicked, and knew I had to stop it. I pulled myself up, inched toward the door away from the roaring flames, and then ran through the hall, following the smoky footprints to my parents' bedroom.
The fire demon hovered above Mom's dresser. With an orange tongue it slurped across family photographs, causing them to melt and shrivel under its touch. I ran forward and seized the next target. The fire demon darted away as Mom opened the door. She saw me there, and her eyes darted from me to the burnt photographs and back to me, her face collapsing in anguish. I turned to put the unharmed frame back on the shelf, and in the dresser mirror I saw Dad. He held the fire demon by the throat, and the demon wriggled helplessly. Our eyes met in the reflection. He shook his head and then carried the fire demon away.
Sarena Ulibarri was the 2005 winner of the Western Regional Honors Council Award for Poetry and has published fiction and poetry in Scribendi, Conceptions Southwest and Alibi. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in '07 and will begin the MFA program at University of Colorado-Boulder this Fall. When not writing, she evaluates submissions for NYC Midnight and Timber Journal.
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