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This Is Going To Burn

Enda Mulholland

A pink flame

He could have gone home after that last run; it was late, he was tired and the small compartment beside the steering wheel where he kept his cash was full. Still, something told Felix to swing through the town on his way, just for one final check. 

There were few others on the roads at this time of the night. He glanced at the clock on the dashboard; it was almost 3 AM. He doubted there was anyone left – the bars were closed now. But, it was payday weekend and the town had been busy. 

He slowed as he drove over the bridge and the black waters of the river below towards the orange glow of the town. The doors of the bars were locked, and the streets were empty. There were remnants all over of those who’d been before; discarded pizza boxes and small piles of sick. A lone stiletto lay against the curb in front of the bank. 

He pulled the car in but kept it running. He was certain there was no one left searching for a taxi, but there was a whisper in the back of his mind. Like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Wait, it told him, just wait one more minute.  

So he did.  

And there he was, stumbling out from the alleyway beside the Butcher’s. His feet dragged on the ground and stumbled over each other like a toddler learning to stand upright for the first time. His head was slumped to the side, with a mess of black hair hanging over his half-closed eyes. The poor lad was utterly stocious. 

Felix looked away. It was too late for that kind of hassle. His car had gotten through the night vomit-free and he wanted to keep it that way. He flicked down his indicator and checked the road was clear in his mirror, but the itch returned somewhere in his skull and he thought back to the young man killed in Knockfola a few months before. He’d stumbled home drunk, stepped off the curb and fallen in front of a van. His head landed right in the path of the wheels. The casket was closed at the wake. 

Exhaling deeply, Felix yanked the handbrake and jumped out of the car, going towards the young man who was now keeping himself upright against the window of the Butcher's. “Need a lift home?” 

The young man managed to lift his head and nod. He was tall, with a slender torso and broad shoulders. Felix guessed he was most likely in his early twenties, but his pale face was boyish, clean-shaven and blemish free, except for the darkness under his eyes. 

“Where you going?” Felix asked. 

“Fomore Road,” he managed to mumble. 

Felix rubbed at his hairless scalp. Fomore road was in the opposite direction of home and it was a bad road at that; leading up the mountain, surrounded by woodland and littered with potholes and sunken dips. But it was a clear night at least with a light wind, free of frost and a bright full moon. “Have you got money on ye, son? I’m not making my way out there unless I know you can pay. Too late for that nonsense.” 

The young man reached into the pocket of his black coat and pulled out a fifty-pound note. That was all Felix needed to see.  

He opened the backdoor of the car and let him fall in. “Seatbelt on,” he said as he walked around to the driver’s side and got in, knowing rightly the chances of the young man co-ordinating that manoeuvre were slim. As he pulled back out onto the road, he glanced in the mirror at the body stretched across the backseats. “Sit up, son,” he said. “Don’t be getting sick in there, you hear me? You feel like you’re going to vomit let me know and I’ll pull over.” 

The young man just mumbled as he sat upright and pressed his head on the headrest behind him. 

The town fell away as Felix drove further into the night. Usually, his passengers were lively and boisterous in the backseat, gossiping and giggling about the night’s events, or even fighting and bickering with each other. If the back was full, he usually had someone in the passenger seat beside him, filling the journey with mindless small talk. Regardless of who they were or how they were feeling, they were always loud. But not the young man. He just sat weary-eyed and stared out the window. Felix reached for the radio and turned up the volume, feeling comfortable enough to let the radio fill the silence, but it only gave back static, no matter what station he turned it to. “Everyone must be asleep,” he joked, but the young man didn’t respond. 

Felix continued to glance at him, unable to look at the road for more than ten seconds before feeling the compulsion to catch another glimpse. His pale skin almost glowed against his black clothes, which were plain but fashionable, especially when it caught the moonlight coming in through the window. “Good night, then?” he asked. 

“Fine,” the young man said, his voice suddenly sounding much clearer. “Although I suspect it may get better.” 

“Oh? You got someone waiting for you at home?” Felix said with a smirk. “Or maybe this isn’t home you’re going to? Somebody else’s?” 

The young man just smiled. 

Felix couldn’t help but notice the change in his demeanour. He didn’t seem that drunk anymore, in fact, he looked perfectly sober. His black hair had been brushed out of his face and it swooped back over his forehead in perfect dark waves. He looked older now too, still with his boyish good looks, but there was a gleam in his eyes that seemed ancient. 

“Fomore road,” Felix said as the trees began to appear on either side of the car. “How far up it are you? I didn’t think there were many houses past the old mill.” 

“It’s quite a bit up.” 

As the treeline grew taller, the air in the car cooled. Felix reached for the heater and turned the knob up fully. “I used to hear stories about this road.” 

“I like stories,” the young man said, a smile curling on his lips, “do tell.” 

“Ah, sure you know yourself, ghost stories; tales about strange creatures coming out of the trees and bloodcurdling screams in the night.” 

“And you don’t believe any of them?” 

“I was a teenager in the seventies. If you heard a bloodcurdling scream in the middle of the night back then, chances were it had a very human explanation. And if you saw someone out in a place like this at this time, they were probably burying something they didn’t want anyone to find; guns, bodies, you name it. You’d just turn the other way and pretend you didn’t see anything.” 

“So you’re a hard man to scare?” 

“Son, you don’t know scary until you’ve come upon an army checkpoint in the middle of the night by yourself.” 

“Perhaps,” the young man said, sitting forward in his seat, close enough that Felix could feel his breath against his neck. “But I’d argue fear is too complex to be contained to one event, one experience. It lies on…oh what’s that phrase everyone loves to use nowadays,” he rubbed his temple and then smiled manically, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, “ah yes, a spectrum – fear lies on a spectrum. It has many flavours; each one comes with its own scent, its own taste and texture. But it’s all delicious.” 

“What are you on about?” Felix asked, looking in the mirror. 

The backseat was empty. There was no one there. Even the air felt light, as though it had never been disturbed by another body in the car.  

“Scared now?” the young man said from the passenger seat beside him. 

Felix screamed, slamming his foot on the brake and sending the car into a spin. The front wheel hit a deep pothole in the road and the tyre burst. The vehicle screeched as it came to a skidding halt. Felix looked up gripping the steering wheel. Smoke and the scent of burnt rubber pushed their way through the heating vents. He was shaking. His heart pounded, stirring up the sharp pain he promised his wife he’d speak to the doctor about. 

His eyes shifted in their sockets to his left. The seat was empty. The young man had gone. And he wasn’t going to look for him. 

He pushed down on the accelerator. The car jerked forward a few inches before it stopped moving completely. The engine revved as more smoke rose out into the trees around him. He wasn’t going anywhere unless he changed the tyre. There was a spare in the boot, but that would mean having to get out. It was either that or sit and wait for whatever was coming his way next. 

He stepped out slowly, wiping the sweat from his forehead. His mouth was dry and sour. He moved a few steps at a time, constantly turning his head in every direction. As he opened the boot, he grabbed the wrench from above the spare wheel and gripped it tight. 

“Do you need a hand?” a voice said from behind him. 

The young man stood tall and proud in the middle of the road with his hands in the pockets of his long coat. He was beautiful and horrifying under the moon. 

Felix moved back towards the driver’s side door, holding the wrench out in front of him and trying to keep his tears behind his eyes. “Stay back! Get away!” 

The young man’s smile stretched from ear to ear, “I thought you didn’t scare easily?” 

“What do you want?” 

The young man walked towards him, swaying gently as he did like he was dancing to music that wasn’t there. “Do you know what fear does to a person, Felix? Prolonged fear? It eats away at them; chews at their mind, their sanity, like a parasite, feasting and gorging itself until it kills its host. It’s cruel and divine and it’s happening to you.” 

Felix half-closed the door, standing behind it and pushing himself tight against the car. “What? I’m…I’m fine! Nothing’s happening to me!” 

“But it is,” the young man said with a laugh. 

“I’m not afraid!” 

“Oh, you are, Felix. You’ve been living in fear since that night. Since you kicked that young man out of your car and left him there to wander drunkenly into the road to meet his end.” 

Felix couldn’t hold the tears back any longer. “That wasn’t my fault!” 

“All that guilt and fear has been living inside you; churning your gut, feasting on your sanity and whispering in your ear; deceiving you, tricking you.” The young man grabbed hold of the car door and yanked it open. “It called out to me, Felix. You wanted to go home tonight, back to your wife and your bed warm soft bed, but instead, you listened to that voice, and you came for me.” 

Felix swung the wrench into the air and brought it down hard against the young man, but he grabbed it and snapped it like a burnt match. He finally began to sob. “Are you going to kill me?” 

“No,” the young man whispered, “you’re not dying tonight, old man. I’m going to open up your mind and lay it on a silver platter for all that madness to consume. I’m going to let it spew out of you and then I’m going to feed off it for years until your poor body can’t take it any longer. Then you’ll die.” The whites of his already dark eyes were swallowed by shadows. He placed both of his hands against the man’s bald head like he was cradling a crystal ball and then he smiled once more. “Now hold on. This is going to burn.” 

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