By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire.
But the tingle of smoke in my throat and lungs had nothing to do with the autumn orange and yellow spattered across the neighborhood. The simple leafy fires of October nature couldn’t compete with the vivid flames of my memory painted into the scars trailing up my arms and across my body. The twist of my mouth and ugliness of my face I knew everyone was too nice to point out, had been born from true fire. Damaging fire.
I stood on my porch with the hood of my jacket far over my face, trying to shade it from the world. Though it had been months since the bandages came off, and longer since I had ventured into the outside world other than car rides to and from the hospital or doctor, it had taken until this moment to really force myself to actually go out my door.
The air felt pleasant against my scarred flesh, and I hugged my jacket tighter around my shoulders. Was I even ready for this? It was such a simple thing, stepping out of my door, and that’s why I had decided to do it on a day I was completely alone. It was supposed to be so easy. I couldn’t ever live it down if I needed help just to get the courage to go outside.
I looked left, and then right. In the distance, a jogger neared, with a dog trotting along beside her. I drew back into the shadow of my doorway. Better to wait until she was long gone. My face could probably make a baby cry, and I didn’t want to deal with the fake sympathy and concern. Or worse, people would just stare and whisper to themselves after I passed: “oh my god, what happened to him?”
All I needed from the store was a carton of milk. It was a six-minute walk through the winding streets of the neighborhood and cutting through a park. Six minutes wasn’t much. I’d be in and out of the store in hardly two, and I barely needed to say a word to anyone. Receipt? No thanks. And gone.
Six minutes there and six minutes back. That was twelve minutes in total, plus the two inside, so fourteen minutes. Almost a quarter of an hour walking outside for the first time in months, alone, with a scarred and ugly face, and my hands trembling.
We all knew those people.
You saw them everywhere, even if you tried not to stare. They had scars on their faces, or missing limbs, or legs and arms that were all twisted. They had faces that looked like a toddler had played with clay before mashing them together. That was what mine looked like now, I was sure. I could see it every single time I looked in the mirror, though the doctor had recommended I not do that. But how could I miss it? Most of my body was this one big warped mess. I barely had hair anymore. If a toddler saw me, they’d scream.
The jogger was long gone, but at any moment someone else could be there, walking out with their family or friends. It would be impossible to go the entire time without seeing another person, and it wasn’t cold enough that I could use the excuse to wrap myself from head to toe with a scarf. Besides, unless I completely covered my face, they’d still see the scars around my eyes, especially where my eyelid drooped like one of those big dogs where their skin hangs all loose.
Why was this so hard? I had been standing there for- I don’t know how long now. It should have been so easy. I had been stepping out of doors my entire life. I was good with people, even. I was popular and well-liked. No one was so shallow that my looks would put them off, right?
Except I knew people. I knew them all too well.
They wouldn’t intentionally be rude, of course. It would start simple and polite. They’d ask after me, skirting around the topic until someone asked how I got the burns. Then I’d have to tell them about the accident and the fire. I’d have to go into detail of how I had tried to break down the door, but that lock which always caught just wouldn’t budge and I had gone hunting through drawers and shelves for the elusive key. I’d have to say that I meant to hang it up on the hook by the door because that’s where we always put it. But I had been drinking the night before and there was this guy and one thing led to another, and when I finally got home and turned on the stove to make myself some tea all I had wanted to do was just collapse in bed and not have to worry about some stupid key.
And some stupid key could have saved everything. The house. Me. My face. I wouldn’t have had to lie in a bed until moving no longer hurt so much. I wouldn’t have had to be spoon-fed by some smiling nurse who probably had better things to do with her life than coddle some guy so stupid to accidentally set fire to his own house and who paid for it and kept paying. I wouldn’t have to sit here, staring at the bright red leaves on the ground, making up every excuse I could just to not take a single step forward.
I blinked away the burning tears of my eyes and staggered back into the house, slamming the door shut behind me.
It was supposed to be easy.
I fumbled my way down the hall and into my room, yanking my cellphone off the charging cord. I closed the apps and self-help tabs that had gone unused before pressing a button and punching in a number. The phone dialed and rang. Once. Twice. Halfway through the third, someone picked up.
“Mom?” My voice was high, wavery, as if I was a kid again, instead of the adult I was supposed to be. I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to make my hands stop shaking. "I think I need help.”