about the author

Robert Hinderliter lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and his previous work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pear Noir!, Annalemma, trnsfr, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications.

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A Thousand Fires

Robert Hinderliter

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First a spontaneous combustion in an Albuquerque jail. I watched the news with my mother in a hospital room in west Memphis. Hoax, she wheezed, and sputtered blood into a Kleenex I held to her chin. The smell of ammonia and perspiration, the soft hiss of oxygen flowing to her nose. I took her damp hand in both of mine as we watched the grainy footage of a man bursting apart, flames erupting from every seam.

That night I was smoking in bed when the world turned upside down and the sound of a braking freight train blared outside my window. No lights. The wall was the floor, scrambling across picture frames, objects slamming into me, taste of blood. A seething pain in my left shoulder. Right foot through a windowpane as I struggled to rise. Gravity inverted again, the teeth-grind growl of the earth splitting open. Tumbling through the air, the crunch of my head against a wooden surface. Straight ahead a dim glow, hands and knees toward it, kick out the glass and lunge. Ten feet down onto spongy grass, wet between my fingers. I gripped it and held tight, though the ground had stopped shaking. Earthquake, I thought, because how can the mind conceive the undoing of a world? In the distance, a desolate howl. Another, closer, and another still. In the moonlight, twenty feet away, a horned silhouette perched on the roof of my car, head back wailing, a burst of steam in the damp air. I huddled against the foundation of my demolished home and there, trembling, I prayed.

Hysteria had engulfed the hospital. I found a nurse cowering behind a crash cart, mumbling to herself. She told me a woman in the east wing had dug out both her eyes with a fork as the earth shook, the ceiling cracked, and a creature with no name clambered and huffed at her door. I passed by rooms with bodies charred or disemboweled. Bloody paw prints in the halls. My mother, when I reached her, mute and unmoving. She had soiled the sheets. Dried blood down the front of her shirt. Her eyes followed me across the room. Static on the television, oxygen thinly hissing. I stroked her forehead. I pressed my face to her neck and left it wet to stare out the window. A gray sky. A thousand fires across the city. Rubble, ruins, jagged gashes in the ground. A new upended world. I saw a man in the parking lot limp toward the hospital doors as a black-furred beast crouched to pounce. The lights in the building flickered. I walked to my mother’s side. I fished in my pocket past my cigarettes and pulled out a book of matches. My mother blinked up slowly. I pulled the oxygen tube from her nose and rested it on her chest. I touched her cheek and I kissed her temple. I lit a match and tossed it onto my mother’s body.

Since then I have committed many sins. I have stolen, I have lied, I have accused innocent people of plots against me. I have killed four men out of necessity and one out of rage. I have raked a broken bottle across a woman’s face over a loaf of bread. I have witnessed acts of barbarism and turned my face away. I have felt my heart swell with bitterness and take the shape of something shriveled and dark in my chest.

I sat in the room with my mother long after the fire had died, after the lights went out, after the day had turned to night and to day again. I thought only of the moment when my mother’s eyes had met mine before the match left my hand. In a lifetime full of misdeeds, I do not count this among them.

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