Rick flinched as the doctor tweezed a sliver of marble from his eye.
“Stay still if you want to keep that eye,” the scruffy sleep-deprived doctor mumbled. Without a trace of mercy, he pried open Rick’s eye and plucked out the tiny splinters. If the doctor was impressed by Rick’s herculean efforts at not blinking, he kept it to himself, and after several efforts on an uncooperative piece, sighed. “That’s the best I can do. You’ll need to come back Monday when the surgeon’s here.”
“So that’s it? I just go home like this?”
“You could get admitted until Monday.”
“Right. Then don’t rub your eyes and wear this on the bad one.” The doctor handed him a patch.
“They’re both bad.”
“Switch back and forth then.”
You pushed too hard was the word from corporate. How convenient. The neo-natal compound that exploded as Rick mixed it with his pestle and mortar– that wasn’t the problem. It was Rick, pushing too hard. Sorry about your eye, Rick, but you pushed too hard.
Rick called a physicist friend on his way home from the emergency room. “You ever hear of this stuff exploding?”
“Never,” he admitted, “You probably had impurities in your sample.”
That had to be it. Rick thanked him and concentrated on the blurry road. Although mortar and pestle weren’t part of his everyday work as a pharmacist, some compounds stored longer in solid form and were crushed only as needed. Perhaps it’s time to revisit that archaic procedure… perhaps corporate should spend the extra dime on pure elements, so that I’m not grinding dynam–
Crack! Something hit Rick’s windshield. More bits pelted his car, clapping like hail. Smoke billowed off the truck just ahead of him, its dimpled, rusty frame leaning to one side. The thing was literally falling to pieces, and those pieces were hitting Rick’s windshield. Great. What kind of moron puts that on the road? It should be scrapped.
As if Rick’s thought was a match, flames bloomed from the truck’s underside and began to lick their way up the driver’s side door. The man was already pulling off to the side, giving Rick the free lane, but did he realize his car was actually on fire right under him?
Rick shouted, pointed, and frantically drummed his horn. Other drivers either took up the cause or were just ticked at the slowdown. They beeped until the hapless man scrambled across the front seat and threw himself out the passenger side, stumbling into the weeds.
What an idiot. Rick thought. If ever a car needed a mercy kill it was that one. And now it’s dead.
Now it’s dead. That fact kept coming back to Rick the rest of the way home. In seventy-two hours Rick’s most desperate wish would be that he not think that thought.
By Monday the cleaning crew had taken care of the mess from the explosion, and an overnight package rested on Rick’s workspace like a centerpiece. A new pestle. How thoughtful. I still have some of my old pestle right here in my eye.
At lunch Rick went to the surgeon. His digging didn’t hurt nearly as much as the ER doctor’s.
“You have a hyphema.”
“Sounds like a predatory animal.”
“It’s bleeding in the anterior of your eye, the space between the cornea and the iris, and it’s going to hurt until the blood reabsorbs… what were you working with when the explosion occurred?”
“A neo-natal compound.”
“Hmmm… both your lenses seem to have a bit of a film on them. Probably the compound is still embedded there. It should absorb into your body over the next few days…. whatever you do, don’t rub your eyes. You’ll just spread it over more of your lens area.”
As long as I can watch Ryan’s soccer game.
Watching Ryan’s soccer team win would be a welcome distraction, even if his vision was fuzzy. His son was a wall of a young man with thick, corded legs that could stop just about anyone who dared bring the ball down the field. And if the forwards would be of a mind to score some goals, it could be a good day– barring incompetent referees of course. In the case of incompetent referees, Rick would politely excuse himself. “It’s that time, Marge.” Rick would pat his wife and squeeze through the crowd.
“Just don’t have a heart attack,” would be her answer. A little distance and Rick could scream if he felt like it.
Saturday was a screaming-on-the-hill day. Rick directed a symphony of rage at the little black and white clad figure who cost his boys a goal. A stick-legged forward had run smack into Ryan, and because Ryan didn’t fall down, the penalty went against him. Ah… I love it when strength gets punished. Helen Keller could see that kid was flopping. Rick tore his Panama hat off his head, twisted and crushed it like paper. Flops, the food stamps of soccer, disingenuous weakness gets rewarded with a goal.
An excruciating tendril of pain pushed into Rick’s eyes. Rick dropped the hat and almost cried out. He dug his palms into his eyes, and was rewarded with a blurry orange sun spot. His tears felt like lava on his cheeks. No matter how he rubbed or blinked, the blurry sun wouldn’t fade. And now the players were not running in formation, but were running away from something, something Rick couldn’t make it out because of the blasted white spot. At the overlong blast of the referee’s whistle and frantic shouting, Rick knew something was terribly wrong.
Rick bolted for the field, trying to tamp down the panic that rose in him. As he ran his vision cleared. Rick’s sun shape took on a crisp, orange-red hue, then elongated, danced, and roared.
The players gathered in a pack against the metal stands, buzzing in awe at the large flame ribbon snaking across the field, shrinking as it went. The sight filled Rick with dread and– oddly, guilt. He found Marge and Ryan and put his arms around them.
When the fire department arrived, the flames had already died off, but the marshal paced the field, collected samples, and when it became clear the crowd wasn’t leaving, he addressed them with his bullhorn, “Folks, this area will need to be investigated. If anyone saw anything suspicious, please contact the department.” He prepared to leave.
“What started it?” Someone from the stands shouted the question on everyone’s mind. Everyone’s but Rick’s.
It was like this. I was looking at the field, calling down fire and brimstone on that excuse for a ref when a blurry sun appeared behind my eyes and simultaneously a fire started on the field… and I know that’s creepy coincidental, but no one’s more surprised than me.
The marshal paused and ran a hand through his silver hair. “Sometimes we just don’t know. This looks like a fluke of chemistry. I’m thinking maybe a cigarette or the fertilizer… but we won’t know until we get the lab reports back, and even then we might not know.”
No one was satisfied with the explanation, but without any other, the crowd had no choice but to go home.
Since Ryan went home with Marge, Rick was free to stop at the park. Gladstone Park’s dirt path was often a sludge pit until the summer drought. Anyone who walked it did so at the risk of tripping on roots or stepping into shoe-sucking mud. Only die-hard bird watchers visited Gladstone– and not in the heat of the afternoon. Rick would be alone. They say curiosity killed the cat. Let’s see what mine can accomplish…
A large black ant crawled over the lip of the bench right next to him. It took only a moment of concentration before Rick’s eyes began to burn. The ant shuddered and its legs crinkled beneath it. Hmmm… now it’s dead.
Still not believing what his eyes told him and thrilled at his trick, Rick turned his gaze to the squirrels gathered around the feeder, their tails gnashing at the air like whips. The world was so full of squirrels, after all. One won’t be missed.
On one squirrel in particular Rick turned his full attention. The pain, the burning in his eyes. Rick stared at the brown fur and willed his eyes to stay open even when he felt the blurry, fiery sun. To his surprise it became even brighter, brighter than he could ever have imagined…
The conflagration of spooked birds and flapping wings cracked the stillness, then the woods were silent again.
The next morning, when Denmark snatched a half-eaten donut off the table, Rick began to scold his collie-shepherd as usual, but Denmark, who usually wagged his tail all through it, whimpered and turned in hunched circles. The searing pain tore into Rick’s head unbidden and Rick nearly threw himself out the door to get away. After five minutes of squeezing his eyes shut and willing the pain away, Rick got up the nerve to crack the front door.
Curled up on his armchair lay Denmark, alive. At the sight of Rick he whined and put his head between his paws.
Well this won’t do. I wasn’t even that mad.
The doorbell rang. Someone must have seen him. Damn. Rick set his face into what he hoped was a casual smile and opened the door.
It was a complete stranger, a middle-aged man dressed in a navy blue polo shirt, jeans, and a matching windbreaker. What really unnerved Rick was the toothpick pressed between his lips. He smiled right around it. Rick’s guts did a dance like when he got pulled over for speeding.
“Mr. Bodeker, sorry to come by unannounced. He flashed his badge and extended his hand, “Robert Alan, Special Division ATF.”
Robert Alan smiled a huge toothy smile that somehow made Rick want to slam the door in his face and lock it. The toothpick pointed rudely at him.
“Deadly serious, I’m afraid.”
“May I ask what this is about?” Rick could feel the heat rising to his cheeks.
“Do you want me to go into it, right here on your front porch?” Robert glanced over Rick’s shoulder to the interior of the house. Marge had left for work an hour ago, but Ryan could come padding down the stairs any minute. Stepping outside, Rick cleared his throat and whispered, “If this is about the explosion, I want a lawyer before I speak with you.”
“You know as well as I do, we’re way beyond that.”
A younger man clad in the same navy blue windbreaker bounded up the porch steps. “Is this him?” He sized up Rick. “Not what I expected. This guy looks so nice.”
I am nice. Rick, threw a scowl at the younger man.
Robert eyed his colleague with irritation. “Yes. It’s him. I thought you were running reports?”
“I did. Seems he had an accident at work, just last week– explosion.” He winked knowingly at Rick.
“There was an explosion! I was grinding with my pestle and–“
“Your pestle, huh? Didn’t they stop using those in the 1900’s?”
“That’s enough,” said Robert, as if he were scolding his children. Robert pulled the younger man aside and whispered something Rick couldn’t hear, though he strained. Robert finished by gently shepherding him away from Rick. Reluctantly, the younger man backed off, giving Rick the evil eye as he did so.
“See you later, warden.” He called over his shoulder.
“Are you a warden?” Rick asked Robert.
“No. He was talking to you.”
“That’s the name they’ve given you, thanks to your little stint in the park yesterday, culling the wildlife.” Robert smiled that vicious toothpick smile. “Ready to talk?
“I thought it had to be alive to work.” Rick tried to defend his squirrel experiment for the umpteenth time. Work had to wonder where Rick was by now. They would have called his phone, the one Robert had turned off and put in his pocket. The bouncer-men on either side of Rick’s chair smelled of lemons and looked like Mr. Universe contestants. They neither spoke nor moved all morning.
“C’mon, Rick… Surely you know everything’s combustible,” replied his toothpick-wielding interrogator. “Most people do their target practice on paper or a tree or even the grass.”
“Of course. Do you think you’re special? That you’re the first person this has happened to?
“We have twelve other people just like you. Nine men and three women. One is an eight-year-old boy who took a hammer to his little brother’s heart pills. They found him on the driveway with the broken capsules. Unfortunately the blast took his ear and half his face, but we took his parents too because we’re not monsters. You got off pretty easy, actually.”
Robert shook his head. “Anyway, we call you busts. That’s short for combustibles. It was the soccer incident that flagged you as a possible bust, and the park confirmed it. You can blame the yittrium-39 embedded on the lens of your eye– maybe both eyes. Yttrium behaves like flint, but not always; only when it comes in contact with certain other elements in exactly the right quantities. A perfect elemental storm, if you will. My assistant just wanted to mess with you on account of that squirrel. He thinks you’re somewhat of a barbarian.” Robert pointed at Rick with his toothpick as he spoke.
Marge doesn’t know where I am. I’m being held against my will, no phone call, no lawyer, and I’m a barbarian?
“Yttrium has been shown to react with bio-matter in unpredictable ways, but we’re getting better and better at working with it, thanks to cooperating folks like yourself.”
“Cooperating folks?” Rick’s heart began to race. He clutched the table.
“You don’t really think you can just go back to life-as-normal, do you? You nearly toasted Denmark this morning. What if you get angry at Marge… or Ryan… or innocent referees?”
“I… hadn’t thought it all through, but–”
“No worries, Rick, code-name, Warden. We’ve got a training facility in Alaska with lots of snow year-round in case things get dicey. Can’t have you burning down the offices… oh, and no more squirrels.” He winked.
Rick slammed his fists down on the table, “Why don’t you just take it out of my eye?” The plain-clothes guards sprang into stances of readiness but Robert didn’t even blink.
“We could. We could take your whole eye out. That’s the only way to render you safe. But most likely both your eyes are infected, so they’d both have to go. You really don’t have a choice, Rick. It’s the only safe option. You do want to keep everyone safe, don’t you?”
“What about my family?”
Robert went on as if he hadn’t heard, “You’re a living, breathing biohazard, and as a biohazard you fall into a completely different distinction under federal law. You lose your personhood, so to speak, but no worries. Rather than kill you and bury you in a cement-lined nuclear waste landfill with the other hazards, the Defense Secretary took the busts as his pet project. Think of it like the draft.”
“But Marge and Ryan–”
“…will miss you terribly. I’m sorry.”
Rick lunged across the table, snarling, and as if on cue, the muscle men clamped Rick back down into his seat. Robert didn’t flinch, even as Rick struggled against the burly arms that held him in place. Why is Robert pretending to give himself a shot with his toothpick? was Rick’s last thought before everything went black.
After acting out his rage by burning harmless black swatches on his stainless steel cell-box and getting punished for it with water delivered via the sprinkler, Rick began to see the futility of his situation. He was starving. He missed Marge and Ryan. He heard voices, sometimes the voices were his younger self. His younger self kept apologizing to the squirrel and the referee, both of whom were charred and grotesque and whose burning flesh smelled like barbecue, which caused Rick to salivate and sicken at the same time. Then the ant appeared and tried to eat him, but Rick zapped it with a beam of flame and ate it instead. It tasted so delicious that Rick cried at the first bite. Then the ant screamed, but the scream was Ryan’s scream, so Rick spit it out and cried some more. I had a life, but now it’s dead…
How long had Rick had been locked in the cell? There were no windows and no sounds. Sometimes Rick hurled twin flames at the wall just to hear the music of the sprinklers, to feel cold rain on his skin. Until it caught on fire Rick had a beard. Then he burned his palms trying to smack it out because the sprinklers weren’t quick enough. Then he screamed for hours or days, he wasn’t sure. Eventually his voice stopped working and his mind did too. He thought of Ryan, standing, not falling down when a player rammed into him. He saw Marge washing the dishes, smiling, telling Rick he looked like Robert DeNiro when he wore his bow tie. Marge’s face sometimes melted in flames. Ryan sometimes turned into a pillar of flame as he played soccer. To make it stop Rick ran into the walls until he knocked himself unconscious. During one of those times, they bathed Rick and cut his hair, for he woke up not smelling putrid, and his beard was gone and most of his hair. That was it. Being clean broke something in him that he’d been holding tightly.
When his fortified water was rolled through the slot he asked to see Robert.
In his original interrogation room Robert met him. It was difficult to recognize the place, now set for brunch with orange juice, cinnamon rolls, quiche, bacon, and coffee. A tablecloth covered the chipped metal table and, except for the bouncer guards at their posts, the room could almost be called welcoming. The smells made Rick dizzy.
Robert waved his toothpick across the spread. “So, you’ve come to your senses. Good. Have some breakfast.”
Rick didn’t move.
Robert picked up a cinnamon bun and smelled it.
Rick looked at the table. Instantly a cinnamon bun ignited and burned with a little head of flame. Then another. Till the whole platter of rolls was burning, filling the room with smoke. The bun in Robert’s hand caught. He let it fall from his fingers with an unhurried air. Robert gazed at the two-way mirror and pointed his toothpick to the ceiling. The emergency sprinklers turned on, soaking the table, the food, the two men. A gesture from Robert and off went the water.
“Don’t play games with me, Rick.”
“I won’t kill people for you.”
“Is that what this is about?” Robert swatted Rick’s comment like he was swatting a fly. “Kill people? No, we have plenty of people for that. We’d never ask you to kill people… yours would be more of a supporting role, especially at first… and they’ll study you, of course.”
“No, I mean I won’t do it. Take my eyes. Both of them. I want my life back. I want my family.”
“We’ve already been over this, Rick,” Robert began, but Rick didn’t come to talk. With lightning quickness, Rick grabbed the butter spreader and went to jam it into his right eye. That was when the meaty arm swept up in an arch that felt like a wrecking ball. With a crack of splitting bone the spreader went flying and Rick screamed. The screams from deep down where he wasn’t sane, they rose in pitch with each successive blast. Each man had an arm pinned, the broken one stuck out grey and jagged, blood pooling where the guard’s hand clamped it. Rick thrashed like an octopus, thrashed and screamed and burned. They’d slammed his head down and pinned it to the table so that he couldn’t burn them. The table started to blacken and Rick’s forehead seared. How ironic that his own face would be the one to melt away.
Robert pulled Rick’s head off the table and wrapped a metallic cloth around Rick’s eyes, tightening it mercilessly. When he sat back down across from Rick, Robert wore a new expression: admiration.
“Know why I chew this toothpick?”
When Rick didn’t answer, Robert went on. “It’s my personal lighting rod. See, I’ve learned that with you guys, the first thing to go up will always be the most combustible: the toothpick. When my toothpick starts getting hot, I know it’s time to slam your face into the table and knock you unconscious. But I’ve never had to do that to you, Rick. And I’m real sorry about your arm. We’ll get that patched up when we’re done here.” Robert sighed and slouched back in his chair. “I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re a good man, Rick Bodeker. Perhaps too good for this program. Not that you wouldn’t kill people. I’m sure we could convince you of the benefits of killing the right person at the right time… but you’re too sold out for your family. Most people think the grass is greener someplace else. This is that somewhere else, Rick. And you’ve decided not to stay, even at the expense of– well, I don’t think there’s a price you wouldn’t pay to get your old life back, is there?” Robert nodded at the butter spreader on the floor.
Robert looked away from Rick and spoke into the two-way mirror. “I told you thirteen was unlucky.” He gave a friendly pat to Rick’s good arm. Then with his toothpick, Robert made as if to poke his eyes. First one, then the other. From behind Rick went the swish of the door, then pain exploded in Rick’s skull for less than a breath.
Rick became aware of himself in snatches, but he couldn’t wake up. Blackness greeted him time and again. That might have alarmed him, but his head hurt too much to care. The hushed voices, the creak of the shifting bed, or the sound of shoes padding nearby would rouse him, but when he tried to wake there was only more blackness and a rhythmic beeping and behind that a quieter thrumming. Something about those sounds was important. But when the pain bore into his skull behind his eyes, Rick didn’t care again. He dived headlong into the escape of sleep and dreamed of starched linen sheets that smelled of lemons and rubbing alcohol. He dreamed of Marge’s soft voice, Ryan’s hand in his. He dreamed they were loving him with words. Good dreams he didn’t care to wake from…
“Rick… can you hear me? It’s Marge.”
“Marge?” Rick stretched his hand toward her voice.
“Right here,” Marge said, catching his hand in hers, her voice barely a whisper. She gently eased him back against the pillow. He felt the pillow. He smelled her lotion, felt the feathery touch of her long hair against his neck, the kiss of her breath. How beautiful she felt.
I can’t see her.
“You’ve been asleep a while. Do you remember what happened?”
“I’m still sleeping. I can’t seem to wake up,” Rick said. At that Marge let out a sound that was part choke and part sob. She guided Rick’s hands, one in a cast, to his scratchy cheeks, then to his lips, his nose, then– thick, crusted gauze.
“You’re awake, Rick.”
[Writer’s Digest’s annual contest entry – mainstream fiction. Last year around this time, a friend did me a kindness. He took my son for a day trip which allowed me several unbroken hours of quiet in which to work on my novel. I was just getting back into writing fiction at the time, and as I thanked him I said, “I’ll write you in as a good guy.” Well, that novel is still half-finished, collecting dust on my hard drive. When my friend had an accident with his pestle– I had no idea pharmacists still use those things!– it gave me the idea for this story.]