I don’t feel real. Lurid, neon greens and reds light up the city, ugly and discordant, flickering across my face as I walk listlessly along the sidewalk, click, click, click. Despite the lights, the sight is bland, cold. Like a tv set: fake and claustrophobic.
Someone screams in the distance, a police siren wails, cars make a soft shhkt sound on the wet tar, and it all feels like it’s happening to someone else. With every noise, I feel as though I’m being stuffed further and further into an airless hole. I’m stuck in an endless bad dream. Days stacking on top of one another. Next day, next day, next day.
I turn onto my street, one foot in front of the other. Heavy with inertia, I tap my identification card on the scanner of my apartment building. The sliding door shakily slides open, stuttering and jerky.
Several people crouch along the walls, all completely still, eyes wide and fixed on me, like some bizarre scene from a painting. Translucent, sticky liquid pools in a trail along the floor. I struggle to register the sight, following the trail with my eyes. At the end, a man hunches over a big red container, one hand grasping a lighter that he gently lowers down, down, eyes fixed on me.
Slowly, he puts a finger to his lips, and as I realise what’s happening fire shoots up from his lowered hand, blue and crimson and so bright it’s like my eyes have been suddenly burnt back into their sockets. I stagger backwards, frozen for a moment in disbelief as flame shoots up along the trail, up the walls, consuming the building. What the fuck. The inferno spreads rapidly, licking its teeth on the windows, numbing my face with heat. I take a step back, legs losing all suspension. Flames gently, briskly, build around my exit.
Abruptly, I jerk into motion, eyes wild, an uncontrollable panic consuming me. Lurching out the door, heart throbbing painfully, I stagger onto the street. Sharp cracks and creaks follow me out over the threshold, which is rapidly blackening with ash. Snap. The building begins to shudder. Debris crumbles and hits the pavement beside me, showering clouds of ash and hot sparks.
I stagger into a desperate sprint, blinking tears out of my stinging eyes, unable to register anything except getting away. The fire spreads like an insidious mould along the conjoined buildings lining either side of the road. Sickly creaks and the first ghastly screams fill the air. It’s as though the buildings are leaning in over my head, threatening to collapse in a charred heap, closer and closer. Smoke and ash drifts around me, leaving me choking through it, buckling over and heaving for breath as I run. Somewhere a siren wails; I barely hear it.
The fire spreads faster than me, lighting up the roads, creeping into cars that explode in balls of sparks and hot metal and human wails. Helpless panic makes me falter, like I’m pushing helplessly through water, running towards something in a dream that isn’t getting closer no matter how hard I run. Something loud crashes behind me, sending shockwaves beneath my feet. I don’t dare turn around; I keep running – until I falter.
Dread turns me cold.
Abruptly, the houses in front of me close off in a narrow, dead end, save for a gap squeezed tight between two buildings. A fence, tucked in, blocks off a river; Beyond the fence a steep drop ends in a cluster of rocks, water swelling and breaking among them. Something’s burning, maybe my clothes, and smoke is making my throat seize and sting.
There’s no going back, there’s no standing still. I hesitate, picturing the sharp rocks at the bottom, and the possibility of my body skewered below. Stuff it.
I clamber up, hands slipping and raw on the metal fence, and sway at the edge for a second. The drop looms below, appearing so far that I wonder if it might kill me. Fire licks at my fingertips and electricity shakes me. Legs first, aiming as far from the rocks as possible, I leap.
The river sends shocks through my skin, leaving me ice cold and clammy. I swim, pumping my arms hard and fast, pushing through the thick resistance of the water. Choking on water, desperately keeping my head above the surface, I push and don’t stop until finally my feet touch a bank of sand. Turning to face the fire, gasping cold, sharp, sobering breaths, my chest swells with a kind of delighted dread. Half the city is in flames, crumbling and charred. It’s horrific. It’s beautiful. It’s nothing like the dismal city of mere minutes ago.
Mundane greys wake up and live, really live, transforming into pyres of flame and coals, flickering, wavering through the water, dappled spots of burning rust and searing white. Gasping for breath, a world of burning stars before me, I think that for the first time in a long time, I’m alive. I’m on fire. It’s unbearable, it’s awful. I don’t want it to end. The monotony of endless day-to-day toil has gone up in flames.
Corner chunks break off and crumble down the sides in slow motion, like wax, tumbling from a burning candle to gather in a melted pool of rubble around the bottom. Soft, white ash floats through the air, dissolving into thick layers over the sidewalk and water like toxic snow.
The green and red city lights intertwine with orange glow, lose their coldness and ugliness, become something new and beautiful, playing a flickering dance along the inky black water. Suddenly, just for a moment, all of it, the shht of car tires on the wet tar, the sirens, the people, are so beautiful, so alive. I know this feeling won’t last. It’s something I’ve never felt before, maybe something I’ve felt a long time ago. It’s fucking amazing. I close my eyes and let the feeling consume me.