A few years back, my cousin Tyler set his own neck on fire with a marshmallow. This both was and was not my fault. He didn’t hold it against me but was a little pissed that he had to get a doctor’s note to play gym. Since he was still in high school at the time, and the gauze the hospital put on the wound looked exactly like he’d gotten a tracheotomy, the teachers were afraid to let him do anything more athletic than using a dry erase marker.
My mother’s side of the family loves holding annual get togethers, since Mom is one of five siblings. They’re scattered among four states, though most reside on the east coast and one resides on the west. We used to hold bonfires and, of course, marshmallow roasting/smore making competitions. When eating tasty food, everybody wins, so they never amounted to much.
There were times we didn’t focus on the food much. When my Aunt Liana got married, we gathered at my Uncle Jerry’s bed and breakfast, where he staged a massive bonfire. It reached thirty feet high, at least in part, because he made the inferno out of fallen tree limbs from the surrounding woods, boxes of old paperwork, magazines, and newspapers, and even discarded furniture. An entire couch went up in flames just so we could pretend the sun was still out.
All our early get-togethers had food cooked over an open flame. It’s the most primal bonding method humanity has: gather your tribe, warm their bones, then set your fresh kill on fire. Granted, bars and graham crackers don’t grow in the wild, nor do you hunt them, but it’s a great bonding opportunity all the same. It didn’t even matter if we could set a real conflagration.
One cool summer night, we pried the grating off Mom’s grill. During Hurricane Sandy, my sister and I used matches to light a stove burner and roasted during the ensuing power outage.
I was a hot-headed, heavy-set, and impatient child, so my preferred ‘mallow roasting method was to jam it straight into the fire, pull it out, watch it burn on its own for a few seconds, then rapidly shake the stick in tight, side-to-side motions to put it out. My cousin didn’t quite get the memo, and while out with his friends one day, he tried my method, but made huge, uncontrolled, back-and-forth swings, which launched the flaming ball of fluff right into his neck. Ergo, my fault, but also not my fault. I may have given him a map to the land of flash-cooked sugar puffs, but I take no responsibility for the fact that he didn’t follow my directions. Still, he got pretty fired up about not being able to play gym.
We didn’t have a lot in common, but we did have that fiery temper. While Tyler had always been more of a steady heat, always ready to burn on his siblings, I operated more like a gasoline bomb, sitting perfectly calm until something set me off. As a kid, Mom taught me not to burn bridges, but I couldn’t help it. My fires blazed bright and scorched the earth my targets stood on. In time, I learned to channel this anger into exercise and video games, trading my puffy childhood body for a more dynamic adult figure, harnessing the uncontrolled blaze into a finely tuned dynamo.
It’s probably no surprise then that my first tattoo was a tribal design of the sun. At eighteen, I decided to finally get serious about turning my life around—about making real change, making problems go away, not simply tolerating them. Aside from being overweight, I was besotted by periodic depression, lethargy, and apathy. Despite having a love of acting, I hadn’t performed since I was the Ringmaster in a middle school production of Barnum. Though I loved reading and writing all my life, I hadn’t written a story in over a year. I’d even won a number of small contests for horror, sci-fi, and erotica through an online community, but that hadn’t kept me going. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I got kicked out of a few adult competitions when the judges realized I wasn’t actually an adult. I found balance through yoga and weight lifting—finding my center, then building my core—and, of course, getting back into writing.
Hence, the sun: a source of heat, an eternal burning, endless power, nuclear fusion churning out fuel for whole world, if more governments (cough cough, the US, cough) would fully embrace renewable energy sources. I got it so I’d never be able to forget that promise I made to myself. A black star, shadow of the real one, all but scorched into my shoulder, like a brand heated by the flame in my heart.
It also bore a fun second meaning of sorts. I’d separated from a long-term high-school girlfriend a few months prior. We and a friend were once arrested for third-degree arson. Not charged, just questioned about. The friend wanted to hold a campfire/wiccan ritual and misled us into thinking we were having it on legally designated campgrounds. Needless to say, the police didn’t agree with her, but when they saw it was an innocent mistake (for two of three of us, at any rate), they let us go. My sister still makes jokes about “the time he set a trashcan on fire.” Among my other mottos, “Don’t get arrested for stupid shit” is now on the list.
In support of this, I inform my friends of a strict policy: if we’re going to do something illegal, give me a warning first. If I get arrested and I didn’t know upfront that arrest was a possibility, I’ll not only throw them under the bus, I’ll be the one driving it. They all know this going in. Those that don’t accept don’t usually stay friends with me for long.
Fortunately, all my fire-setting activities are limited to video games and when the stove/grill’s igniters don’t work. For a long time, I was infamous in Left 4 Dead circles. Anytime a teammate got swarmed by zombies, I’d invariably chuck a Molotov cocktail at them, setting them on fire but also freeing them from certain death.
Family get-togethers still have the bonfires, though. In the summer of 2017, my cousins and I gathered around a make-shift firepit (read: patch of dirt surrounded by a low wall of rocks) to set an old Christmas tree on fire. Why they still had that, I’ll never know, but the dried-out bristles went up faster than my Left 4 Dead allies. We did have marshmallows. Neither Tyler nor myself had any.
That sun tattoo got a follow-up. At twenty-one, I went with a Chinese woman and her cousin to a tattoo parlor, because said cousin wanted to get the Bushido code’s kanjis on his arm. While waiting, I thought about how I’d succeeded. I was now a student at a private university, with several dozen short stories published, working on a novel, with a near 4.0 GPA and honors. I’d succeeded. I’d burned away my old life, so I decided to get a kanji myself. “Destroyed by Fire,” on my left collarbone, right by that ever-burning shadow sun.
I later dated that same woman, and since we’re no longer together, that tattoo could’ve easily become a reminder of our time together, but the original meaning helps keep such lingering ideas at bay. Destroyed by fire: any part of your old life goes in the furnace. Every decision you make, and every new day, is a chance to be a newer, better, stronger person than the day before.
While I have tons of more tattoo ideas that will ultimately be a pun on the second amendment, my lack of funds put those plans on standby. Besides, I’d like to run a Tough Mudder so I can add the victory tattoo (a silhouette running through fire) to that sleeve. I want to incorporate a little historical imagery in there too, maybe religious figures like Abaddon, or Uriel with the flaming sword. I’ve been told I’m going to Hell for all sorts of reasons—because I write horror, because I don’t go to church, because people like to say that when they don’t like somebody—and I want to make sure my ink says loud and clear, “I know where I’m going. Do you?” Perhaps I’ve listened to A7X too much, but I’m a big proponent of “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
I’m more Buddhist/agnostic than anything, and don’t believe in a strict Heaven/Hell dichotomy, so this philosophy of mine is all satire. It’s poking fun at those who freak out at the slightest mention of heresy and sin, not a condemnation of the religious. Call me a troll, but when people get heated and tell me I’m heading to the flames, I like pouring gasoline on their fires. A lot. I am, at times, downright incendiary.
I don’t provoke everyone, mind you. Just those who take themselves too seriously.
Fire runs in my family as much as it runs in my veins. Most of the best, worst, and generally most memorable moments of my life began with a spark. Whether that blaze heated a home and cooked food, or burned a loved one and got me carted down to the local precinct, I wouldn’t be who I am today without a little burning.
That, in a nutshell, is where “The One Who Burns” came from: the ever-present theme in my life that a flame isn’t good or bad, it simply is. I say, if you’re going to burn, be the flint, and not the tinder.
Kevin Holton‘s short fiction and poetry have been published with The Literary Hatchet, HellBound Books, Thunderdome Press, Radiant Crown Publishing, Mighty Quill Books, and many others. A short film he co-wrote, Human Report, is under production, and his novels The Nightmare King and At the Hands of Madness are being published by Siren’s Call Publications and Severed Press, respectively. When not writing, he’s an actor, athlete, and professor who can probably be found drinking coffee or talking about comic books.
P.S. Check out his story trailer for “The One Who Burns” here!