He wasn’t sure how long he had been on fire. He just woke up to the sound of the apartment building’s alarm. He ran outside and rolled on the ground, but the fire wouldn’t snuff. People beat him with jackets and blankets and dumped water on him. The water made the fire hiss and die, but it just sparked up again. His boxers burned off.
He stopped panicking when he realized he wasn’t in pain and could breathe okay. The other people stared at him as their homes burned to the ground. The fire department and police arrived. The police asked him questions while the fire department tried to stop the building fire from spreading to the others in the complex.
“Why are you on fire?” One of the officers said as they all kept their distance.
“No idea. Woke up like this.” The police scratched their heads and scribbled in notebooks.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?”
“That’d be nice. I’d rather not be on fire anymore.”
The ambulance arrived, but they wouldn’t take him because the vehicle couldn’t drive properly or safely with a passenger engulfed in flames. So he just stood there. Somebody would dump water on him every now and then, and it would hiss and die and flare up again. The other residents started to get angry with him for burning down their homes. They yelled at him, saying “Stop being on fire, why don’t ya? You’ve burned down our building!”
The police separated him from the group to protect him from them and them from him. They finally called a company to bring a live fish transport truck. He climbed into the tank. They gave him a snorkel and he sat in the tank as they drove to the emergency room. Once he got out of the tank the fire started again so the doctors had to come to him. They didn’t want him to burn down the hospital and kill all the nurses, doctors, cancer patients, and janitors. The doctors observed him and called more doctors down. Soon every single nurse, doctor, cancer patient, and janitor was out of the hospital to look at the flaming man. The real bad patients, particularly those in the ICU, were without doctors for hours. Several died because their doctors were not taking care of them.
The doctors got into a huddle and one approached the man as close as he dared to and said, “Does it hurt?”
The man shook his head.
“Then we suggest just dealing with it, there’s nothing we can do.”
“But everything I touch burns. I hurt other people and things!”
“Sorry.” The doctor shrugged and stepped away.
The group of nurses, doctors, cancer patients, and janitors filed back into the hospital to resume operations and to pronounce dead those who died in their absence. The man sat down on the curb and buried his face in his hands.
“What am I going to do?” He said.
At this point he’d hoped a beautiful woman that couldn’t stop leaking water would come along so it would be a story they could tell their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, but he had no such luck.
He walked to the nearest river and dove into it. The flames hissed away and he swam. He kept swimming until he got to a large waterfall. He let the current take him over the edge. He fell and hit his head on a rock at the bottom and died. His body floated there until some hikers found him. They called the police. They arrived and fished his corpse out of the water and it sparked on fire yet again. They remembered him. They didn’t recognize him at first because he was bloated and his head was caved in. They knew there was nothing they could do so they pushed his body back into the water.
And there it stayed. It became a kind of tourist attraction and boosted the economy of the small town. They called it Fireman Lake. The tourists and local kids liked to pull his body out of the water to watch it catch on fire. They’d roast hot dogs and marshmallows and light fireworks with the flames.
Then the flesh started to rot and the bones sank to the bottom of the lake. The mayor, panicking about losing tourism money, got the police to dive into the lake to retrieve the bones. They found them and brought them ashore. But they didn’t catch on fire. The mayor wept as the police chucked the skull and the rest of the bones back into the water. When he stopped crying, the mayor changed the name to Skeleton Lake.
People stopped visiting the town. When the kids graduated from high school they’d go to college in another state and never come back. The people that stayed there eventually died and it became a ghost town.
At the bottom of Skeleton Lake the power of the waterfall broke the bones against rocks and whittled down the pieces until they became absolutely nothing but particles mixed in the water. And there the particles stayed until nuclear war ended the world.
The Guy Who Lived in a Tree
This guy lived in a tree. Not in a treehouse or inside the trunk. But amongst the branches. Not in a forest or an arboretum. But in the backyard of a family he never met. He watched them, though. Not for sexual perversion or because he was planning violence. But because he was lonely.
You see, this guy who lived in a tree lost both parents in a freak factory accident. You see, his parents both worked at the same factory. You see, that’s where they met. And in the men’s restroom is where they conceived the child who would eventually grow up to live in a tree. They loved this child even more than they loved each other. And they never thought of this child they conceived in the bathroom of the factory they met at as someone who would ever end up living in a tree.
But they had no say in the matter. Because of the explosion, you see. Because bits of flesh and bone that needed to be mopped up from the tile for this factory to maintain cleanliness standards cannot tell their child that living in a tree is not such a good idea. So this guy that lived in a tree—because his parents exploded in the factory they met at and conceived him at after a decade of working there without incident—really honestly didn’t know any better that such a place is not a suitable habitat for human beings.
And this tree, it was a nice tree. A perfect tree for somebody orphaned by a factory explosion. The branches were dense, so he never fell. He almost fell once, but he woke up in time to steady himself. Good thing, because the children of the Grieb family were playing below. Chances are he would've crushed them. He would’ve had to answer questions like How long have you been living in our tree? and Why are you living in our tree? and What are you going to do about our crushed children? These were questions he didn't want to answer.
Nobody knew what to do about the child these two factory workers conceived in said factory’s bathroom. The explosion blew them to smithereens, so they couldn’t be parents anymore. The employees responsible for getting these parents’ teeth out from under the machines and the clumps of hair that were still attached to pieces of scalp out of the rafters were talking about the fate of this orphan. They said things like What is this child going to do? He’s only ten, and his parents have been killed by this explosion that sent the gamut of their vital organs into these rafters and under these machines.
But they didn’t have to worry about it any longer because what the child did was run away. He took a backpack full of his favorite toys and handheld video games with him all the way across and around the United States. By the time he got back home, he was a grown man and had gotten over the fact that his parents were killed by an explosion in the factory they met at and whose bathroom they conceived him in. But when he arrived at his old house, another family had moved in there. The mailbox said “Grieb.” And not wanting to disturb the family, but also not wanting to be away from home anymore, he climbed the tree in their backyard and took residence there.
Then one day he heard the Griebs talking.
"It looks dead."
"It's going to fall."
"It will crush our children."
The chainsaw men came the next day. The guy stayed. The tree fell over with him in it. The impact killed him. The Griebs and the chainsaw men surrounded his body. "Why was he in our tree?" "How long had he been there?” “He could have crushed our children.”
Rob Onofrey lives in Valparaiso, Indiana. His work has been published in Stanley the Whale, Colored Chalk, and A Common Thread. He likes to play Dungeons & Dragons and remove the child safety band from Bic lighters.
Rob sent a link to amphibi.us as part of the publishing history in his bio, but the lit site has apparently gone dead. What is there now, however, is really bizarre and hilarious. It looks like some kind of spam entry point (very poorly) disguised as, um, a dating site? Blog? Thing?