A Fire Within by Ashley O’Melia “I think we’re safe,” I said as I peered in the side view mirror. Only grass and trees whizzed by; we had left the horrid monsters behind. News reports claimed that other towns were safe. Only Lavania had been affected after the earthquake that had split the ground like a lip, vast amounts of molten rock oozing forth like blood. That was when the creatures first appeared. Just one or two at first, but the incidents steadily increased. Nobody could explain what they were or where they had come from. The religious nuts said they were a sign of the apocalypse, God’s punishment of Lavania for its sins. Of course the scientists said that was ridiculous, but they had no better explanation. They could only say that the things were there, they were dangerous, and we had to get out. So that was what Tommy and I had done. We left behind almost everything in our apartment—because we could always acquire a sagging couch and numerous empty pizza boxes wherever we ended up—and jumped into his Jeep. We hadn’t seen any of the creatures as we sped out of the neighborhood, but we wouldn’t feel safe until we had crossed the town border. And so it was that I told him we were safe as we passed the sign, “Thanks for Visiting Lavania. Come Back Soon!” I sank against the back of the seat, not ready to think about where we would go but glad to leave where we had been. The wind picked my hair up and flung it around my head, a refreshing sensation after the sweat and the fear. “I bet we could crash with my aunt for awhile,” Tommy volunteered, glancing at me from the driver’s seat. That was Tommy: he always had a plan and a place to go because everyone loved Tommy. I loved Tommy, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. In retrospect, I probably should have, but it’s hard to confess your feelings when you’re speeding down the highway and watching your rearview for homicidal beasts. “Are you hot?” I asked. A burning sensation was creeping up the back of my neck. It heated me from the inside despite the breeze that washed over us from the open top of the Jeep. “I’m good,” he shrugged. Of course he was good. Tommy was always good. But as beads of sweat popped out on my upper lip, I knew that I was not good. I didn’t know why, but I wasn’t. I was just about to tell him as much when a clawed hand wrapped around my neck, pinning me to the back of the seat. It seared into my flesh with a hissing noise. I gagged as I tried to pull it off, but I only succeeded in singeing my fingers. Tommy slammed on the brakes, hit the gas, then slammed on the brakes again. He didn’t know what to do, and even if I did I wouldn’t have been able to tell him with the creature’s hand around my throat. The creature pulled himself into the cab of the vehicle despite Tommy’s wild driving. It hovered before me as though the speed of the Jeep and perhaps even gravity didn’t affect it. I hadn’t seen one of the beasts up close, only blurred videos on the news, but at that moment I wished I hadn’t. It was humanoid, insofar as it had a head on its shoulders, two arms, and two legs. But its skin was the deep black of something burned, crackled and crispy like a hot dog that had been forgotten on the grill. A fiery redness glowed beneath, peeking out from the fissures in its skin. I couldn’t see a face, but I didn’t need to in order to know it was looking at me, studying me, boring into me. My horror froze me in place. I should have been fighting it off, kicking, punching, anything, even screaming. But I sat inert in the seat of the Jeep, the creature looming over me. Tommy was screaming something from the other side of the vehicle. I was too hypnotized by the burning creature to understand him. I didn’t know how the creatures took their victims. I only knew that missing people were all over the news, their pictures flashed across the screen every night after dinner. I didn’t have to wait long to discover their methods. The creature bent back his leg as though to kick me. But when he brought it forward, something jabbed into the end of my big toe. I looked down, regretting my choice of flip flops that day. The thing had a fat claw on the end of its foot, like a blackened thorn from a burned bush. It was buried completely in my flesh. I think I did finally scream at that point, but the pain blocked out the audio on my memory. A scorching private hell was pushing its way up through my foot, charring my bones as it went. I stared in horror as it made its way up to my ankle. I tried to yank my foot back, but my efforts were futile. The claw remained implanted in me, infecting me. The flesh around it blistered and blackened. It flaked off, falling like black snow to the floorboard of the Jeep and revealing bright embers underneath. My breath left me as I realized how it worked. The blackness crept up my leg, and I understood why the police never found any bodies. I was becoming one of them, and there was nothing I could do about it. The fire incinerated its way up my body. It wrapped around my heart, reducing it to a pile of ashes before moving on. Even my vision was taken over with a hot darkness before it cleared to reveal a world that burned around me. I looked down at my body, a mass of hot coals in human form. Fire danced inside my skin, a deep crimson blending with shades of orange and sulfurous yellow. I was no longer afraid as I looked up at the demon that had made me. It extracted its thorny toe from my foot with a quick yank, and a claw of my own grew in its place. I turned to Tommy.