Briar Ripley Page
It was easy for Sketch to think of doomed places as ruled by fire. He’d grown up in the rust belt, outside a town that had been abandoned to an unstoppable mine fire raging in the caverns beneath its asphalt and concrete and carefully planted lawn grass. Like a lot of people, he’d gone there to spray graffiti and drink in the empty church as a teenager. You could sometimes smell the fire, a little, a smell like sulfur and burning trash. Or smoke would ooze out from a crack in the ground.
There was a drought, although Sketch didn’t realize it until he was hitching a ride back to Mr. B’s place in a farmer’s truck. He’d left rust behind and ended up in Florida, first for rehab, then because it was easier to get drugs, to stay drunk, to sleep outside in the winter if he had to. The man drove with a heavy foot, a casual left hand on the steering wheel, and only one eye on the road. Country music sputtered occasionally from the truck’s radio. Near the Alachua county line, Sketch saw flames rushing up from a field, reverse-haloed in thick black smoke. He smelled the smoke, too. The air outside the truck warped extravagantly with heat piled on heat.
“What the fuck,” said Sketch.
“Yep,” said the farmer. “Everything’s turned into kindlin’.”
“It looks out of control,” said Sketch.
“Can’t they do something to put it out?”
“Oh, they’re tryin’,” said the farmer, and before they sped past, Sketch saw the flashing sirens in the distance, the long hose that needed multiple men to hold it. Water flew from the hose in a shimmery arc, tiny and pathetic next to the force of the fire. A lot of it was steam well before it made contact with the field’s burning crop.
Sketch felt like he had a hidden fire, too. It wasn’t a good thing. His bones were sulfur and phosphorus. They rubbed against each other in red-hot pain and sent forth sparks that lit up every nerve in his body. His brain roared. His mouth filled up with ash. He couldn’t stay still or stop yelling. The only things that helped smother the blaze were booze and pills. Whenever he asked a doctor for help, they just tried to make him take different pills that didn’t work as well. Or they told him to channel it into art, or moving heavy crates around a warehouse, or something else “productive”. Fuck that, was Sketch’s opinion. Productivity had caused the mine fire in the next town over. Productivity was melting Antarctica. Productivity burned the world up. Sketch knew that destruction was in his nature, and he wanted to destroy exclusively on his own terms. And, hopefully, without hurting too many other people.
Mr. B would let anybody crash at his house out in the swamplands. After an acquaintance tipped him off, Sketch started staying over there pretty regularly. Mr. B required his guests to pitch in with chores and listen to him talk about religion and philosophy, but he didn’t require that anyone stay sober. It was free food and a free air mattress up in the attic. A standing fan on the floor beside him so he wouldn’t sweat himself to death in the May heat. Mr. B said that the entire state would sink underwater within the next hundred years, or maybe it was that the water would rise to cover it up. Sketch could believe it; the swamp oozed, the air was as moist as the inside of a mouth. But he couldn’t help thinking of Florida as another kind of fire country, blazing and smoky, about to be laid waste.
“So they’re not that different, then. Fire and water: you’d think they’d be opposites, but they’re both destructive forces, and they’re both cleansing ones. Both place-swallowers.”
Tyrell sipped contemplatively on the tallboy Sketch had got him from Publix. They didn’t know each other that well yet, but they were getting there. They’d been sharing the attic for about a week. Sketch liked Tyrell, who was smart and quiet without being uptight.
“Yeah,” said Sketch. He was melting into his mattress. His limbs felt soft and slick and heavy. His head was all embers for now. He wanted nothing. He had Xanax. He had a liter of the cheapest vodka he could find and some Diet Coke to mix with it. “Wait. Cleansing?”
“Some places burn to keep from smothering themselves with their own expansion. Choking themselves with growth. The fire clears out ground for fresh grasses and trees. It’s natural. Water does the same; think about the Bible, or Sumerian mythology. The great flood. It made the world new again. You cauterize a wound with a burn, and you clean it with water.”
“I guess,” said Sketch, unconvinced. “Hard to believe what I’ve seen could cauterize anything. Hard to believe my insides are being cleared out. I always thought it was shitty for God to drown the old world, anyway. He’s God, right? He could’ve just changed all the bad people into good ones. Made the land look different if he was sick of it. Without any death.”
“Not without violating free will.” Tyrell lay back on his mattress. “And anyway, the Sumerians told that story different.”
Sketch didn’t say more. He couldn’t. The fan whirred and his breath grew slower. He had the thought that he and Tyrell were each floating at the bottom of a different deep well, each looking up, up, up the long stone tunnel at the same darkness, trying to make out some hopeful shape within its vast recesses. Sketch made out nothing. He closed his eyes and forgot the conversation.
The weeks wheeled on, and Sketch went in and out of Mr. B’s place. Sometimes Tyrell was there, or another familiar face. Mr. B always had something to say about Sartre or evolutionary biology or Jonah and the whale. He said Sketch was like Jonah—he could see the mark on Sketch’s forehead.
“Someday, you’ll quit running from your purpose. You’ll get out of that fog you put yourself in. You’ll stop hiding your light.”
“I don’t believe in purpose,” said Sketch.
“That’s one reason you’re unhappy,” said Mr. B. “Another, of course, is the world.” He handed Sketch another potato to peel. Sketch could smell his young man sweat and Mr. B’s old man sweat mixing in the yellow kitchen. A lizard crept across the wall behind the stove.
Sketch had been in Florida for ten months and he hadn’t seen the ocean yet, although sometimes there was salt on the air and often a seagull flew over the telephone poles, over the cypress trees loaded down with Spanish moss. He looked on Craigslist for whatever short-term gig paid the most money and seemed the most likely to take him. He wasn’t picky. He hitched into Gainesville; he hitched all the way to Tallahassee and back. Sketch blacked out and woke up curled between craggy, protruding roots in the woods, his shirt plastered in vomit and his jeans completely gone. Sketch blacked out and woke up in a motel bed with Tyrell naked beside him. Sketch said, “Tyrell,” and put his hand on the other man’s shoulder. Then the man turned around and his face was a red-eyed stranger’s. Sketch left before learning the stranger’s name, or whether they’d fucked. There was a fire on the horizon; a different motel burned down when the proprietor fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand. Sketch could not get the ashy taste off his tongue, even when he remembered to scrub a toothbrush over it. Foam frothed up to cover the tongue’s bumpy, furred landscape.
Then it was the storm season. Then Sketch had been in Florida for a full year.
The storms were fiercer than usual that August and September, as if to make up for the preceding dearth of water. Hurricanes tore up the coast. Rain came down so hard some afternoons that it made Sketch blind and deaf to everything but its silver fall, the weight of each drop like a tiny stone on his skin until he felt like he’d dissolved into it, not even wet anymore but a formless silver ghost. He was mostly doing Percs at this point, with the ever-reliable vodka chaser. They blurred him until he could feel the sky more than he could feel his own feet. Sometimes he was blurred enough to let himself have what he wanted, even though it was dangerous to want it. Men in motel rooms. Shoplifted paint markers that he used to draw flowers on the sides of buildings. They weren’t real flowers. Sketch didn’t know anything about plants. He’d always wanted to garden with his grandma as a kid, but Dad and Pop-Pop took him to the shooting range instead. So he made up imaginary flowers for the plaster and cement walls. His favorites had long, sharp petals and open eyes at their centers. He drew some of the eyes weepy and bloodshot; others stayed clear. He drew Tyrell’s eyes, the eyes of the motel men, Mr. B’s eyes. His father’s eyes. His grandfather’s eyes. His own. Some of the eyes were washed quickly into nothing. Some lingered for a while. It didn’t matter either way.
Sketch slept under a bridge. He slept on a college girl’s couch. He found himself back in the yellow kitchen, peeling potatoes, with no memory of how he’d come to be there, or when, or why.
Janna, another regular, told Mr. B there was an evacuation order for the county. She wondered where they were all going to go. She wondered if there were enough cars for everybody.
Mr. B said they weren’t going anywhere. They could take the spillover from the latest hurricane. There had been worse years; nothing terrible had ever happened to the house before.
Sketch kept peeling potatoes. The knife had a turquoise handle, bright as a child’s drawing of the sea. The knife moved on the potato skin without him; he just watched it work. He couldn’t think about the future, so he stayed where he was and observed the potato’s increasing nudity.
Janna cut out the next day, clinging to her friend Martine on the back of a motorcycle.
The rain fell down. Sketch remembered the rain from his time in rehab. It seemed more pervasive now, more real, although he was a lot less sober. He wondered if it could wash away the fire inside him for good, if it was already in the process of doing so.
When Sketch was fourteen, his dad had briefly been convinced he was on the road to becoming a school shooter. At the beginning of ninth grade, Sketch grew his hair out so his bangs swooped down to cover one eye like a wing. He started filling notebooks with drawings of boys on fire, boys falling into the sea, boys tearing each others’ hearts from their chests. He began wearing a lot of black.
When his dad stopped taking him to the shooting range and Sketch asked why, he received a fumbling, impromptu lecture on gun safety, God, and the sanctity of human life. It ended with an impassioned plea to confide anything that might be troubling him, anything he might be keeping secret.
Sketch brushed his wing of hair behind his ear so he could meet his dad’s gaze.
“I’m gay,” he said.
“I want to draw comics when I get out of school. Or be a painter, maybe. I want to make beautiful things.
“I’m worried about you. Your back, your heart. You shouldn’t have to work so hard. It’s fucking up your whole body. What if you die?
“Sometimes I feel so mad I could rip the whole world open. It’s not fair, how fucked up things get.
“Sometimes at night I get so sad I wish I didn’t exist. I can’t sleep. I can’t scream. I just have to lie there until it goes away.”
Sketch’s dad leaned back on the scratchy plaid sofa and took a very deep breath.
“You’re going to grow out of it,” he said. “All of it. You’ll be a man soon. In the meantime, I’ll see what kind of child psychologist I can get on the company insurance.”
The fire in Sketch leapt up, but all he did was stomp to his bedroom and slam the door hard behind him. He decided he’d never tell his dad anything important again. He threw himself on his mattress and pretended he was doing the dead man’s float in a lake somewhere far from home.
Sketch woke up to the howl of the storm, and a loud series of cracks that he mistook for thunder. Then he was falling, sliding, tilting towards a splintery cliff. He scrabbled to his feet, braced his arms against the attic wall. A tree had fallen through the roof of Mr. B’s house, barely missing Sketch’s sleeping body. It had gone through the attic floor, and probably the second floor, too; it was hard to tell because of shadows, and the rain, and the bristling branches poking through the hole in the attic at crazy angles. Everything was covered in plaster dust from the collapsed ceiling. The plaster dust was quickly turning soggy.
Sketch could hear shouting from below. Many voices. He was glad Tyrell wasn’t around. He was glad Janna had left on the motorcycle. He hoped Mr. B was all right. He couldn’t tell if any of the voices belonged to the old man.
The tree trunk bisected the attic like a firm slash of ink meant to cross out a word. Sketch could get around it to the door if he wanted, though it would be a bit of a squeeze. He could go downstairs.
His brain was humming. His brain was lighting up with little licks of flame. He had a
headache. He looked around; pocketed a pill bottle, saw that others had fallen through the floor. The rain felt good on his skin, even on his bare feet. Faint, bluish light filtered through the hole in the roof along with the droplets.
On impulse, Sketch swung himself up onto the rough, sodden bark of the tree. He grabbed hold of its branches. He climbed past the crumbled ceiling shedding splinters and plaster and scraps of intestine-pink insulation. He climbed past the roof’s shingles. The wind shook him from side to side. The rain blinded and buffeted him. He clung and climbed, into the sky, as far as he could before he came to the massive, broken point of the tree trunk. He held on.
And after some time, suddenly, the wind and the rain stopped.
Sketch, clinging in the stillness, imagined himself at the center of a flower. The truth was more complicated. Sketch opened his eyes and saw:
the dark flood rolling around the heels of the ruined house, burying the roots of the trees, wetting the shins and knees of the people who crowded around outside, looking panicked and scraped, jabbing violently at their phone screens, speaking rapidly into phones they held crushed to the sides of their faces
the liminal, bruise-colored gap above him, surrounded in the distance by skirls of black cloud in all directions
the first stars coming out, or maybe the last stars to fade away, gentle candles
the highway, and no one coming on it, and no one leaving, either.
Briar Ripley Page lives and writes on Earth. Parts of this story actually happened. (Parts of most stories actually happened.) Briar's previous work has appeared in beestung, Moon Park Review, Prismatica, Random Sample Review, and other places. Find Briar online at briarripleypage.xyz.