At 9:09 a.m., the lab exploded. Ayden had been monitored so closely for so long that she kept track of the clock. She allowed herself one final glimpse of it before she destroyed everything. For nostalgia’s sake.
The morning was mild aside from the blazing rubble, the sky silk and lavender, the sun a vague blush behind wispy clouds. She hadn’t seen it in six months. A deep breath relaxed her muscles, always sore after the Flame, the same way as when she had the flu. It made her miss the soothing transit of the Flora even more.
She picked her way carefully across the debris, avoiding the broken glass and bits of twisted metal, but the patches of flame, she walked through out of obsession. She felt less human when it touched her but less like a monster, too. Something in between. A force of nature, as simple and significant as that.
When she reached the highway, the approaching noon showed the faint suggestion of mist had condensed into total cloud cover. Angry smoke coiled in the distance, dense and black. How long would it burn?
She stood for a moment at the edge of the asphalt, stroking her bare toes over grease and gravel. The road was silent. A forest waited across the way, but the surrounding landscape stood bare. The ride out here, in the back of a van with a bag over her head, hadn’t allowed a chance to view the countryside. She could be anywhere.
Her blood smoldered. She clenched her jaw and willed it to pass without consuming her, but tears of frustration built behind her eyes.
Breathe. Get your shit together.
Home was west. If she kept her head, the sun would guide her back, although the clouds made for a bit of a guessing game. Hitchhiking was a possibility, but she wasn’t sure she was ready for the whole human interaction thing.
Why go home? There’s nothing there for you now. You can start over.
Hollow thoughts, a dull attempt to dissuade her.
No starting over. Home was the end of the line. She needed to go back.
She crossed the road and hid among the trees. The road led west, and she would follow it from their shadows.
A little past noon, she came across the diner. It stood alone at the edge of the highway, a squat toad of sun-faded brick and coiling vines. Peeling paint had disfigured the name. She might’ve thought it long-abandoned if not for the cars gathered in the parking lot, sitting at odd angles to avoid the numerous potholes.
She stood at the edge of the trees for a long time. Hunger took up a demanding residence in her stomach, and not just hunger but craving. She hadn’t eaten anything aside from the amorphous slop served at the lab. She could probably scrounge up something in the forest or dig a meal out of the dumpster, but all the tastes she thought she’d never taste again glutted her mind.
Ayden stepped toward the diner and caught sight of shadows moving behind its dusty windows. Her throat tightened. She stepped back.
This is fucking ridiculous. They’re just…people.
This did not make her feel better.
A dozen times, she advanced and receded before surrendering to the irresistible perfume of coffee and frying foods. Voices chattered and call bells rang.
Ignoring the sick twist of nerves in her gut, she stepped inside.
A friendly gold-lettered sign instructed her to pick her own seat. Still she stood, gaze flicking back and forth, panic firing along her veins. Or perhaps, it was the Flame…
She shut her eyes tight and quenched the heat building in her chest. She would not lose it here. She would stash her fury for later.
When she was eighty-three percent sure she wouldn’t combust, she sat in a secluded booth by one of the windows. Picking up the greasy menu, the grimy glass pane drew her attention. Why did people still come here despite the building’s uninviting countenance? She hoped it was because the food was fantastic. Or maybe the building was abandoned and people just filled it up anyway. That was what happened, right, with empty vessels? They were filled with something new…
“You know what you want, hon?”
Ayden jumped at the gravel-hard voice. Her stomach pooled with ice at the sight of the woman leaning next to her table. Creepers wreathed her arms and legs, dipping in and out of her flesh like deep-green stitches. A tiny shoot sprouted from a mole on her cheek. None of this alarmed Ayden. What worried her was how close the woman was, and such proximity recalled the expectation of pain.
But the pain never came. The woman’s expression soured while Ayden struggled to remember how these sort of interactions worked.
Finally, she managed what she hoped was a smile and said, “Uh…no. Not yet, sorry.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “I’ll come back.”
Prepared the second time around, Ayden ordered a double cheeseburger, chili-cheese fries, a cola, and a slice of cherry pie for later.
She didn’t know why she ordered it until it was staring her in the face, the white of the creamer swirling into it like that scene in Vertigo.
Jackson was the coffee drinker from a young age. His parents didn’t approve, but he did it anyway, sneaking sips from the pots they brewed in the morning, or making his own during the summer when they left for work. For his eleventh birthday, Ayden saved up to buy him a tiny coffee maker to stash in his room.
She pushed the cup back and forth between her hands before finally drinking it, but even with four packets of sugar and a butt-load of half and half, it tasted like shit. She switched to soda.
She drank in deep, breathless swallows. Human to Flora, an even ratio. A heavy sadness descended while she catalogued. She hadn’t been human for nearly fifteen years, but she was no longer Flora. Belonging had never been her medium, but this was different.
Her food came quickly, gleaming with grease in the kind of gratifying way only diner food could pull off. But it held its form. That was important. Ayden sank her teeth into it.
Three-fourths of her meal was gone when her stomach lurched in an urgent sea swell. She scrambled out of the booth, silverware clattering on tile in a juddering call to attention. She disappeared quickly, desperate to avoid scrutiny.
The bathroom was small, just enough space for her to collapse over an unaccompanied toilet and vomit. Spasms bent her at the waist, like some greater force squeezing her. She hoped with a tear-blind, vigorous hope that her aim was on point.
When the spasms slowed, she slumped against the wall. Most of it, she’d gotten in the toilet, a small victory. Her stomach was empty once again, with a new ache to accompany it, and she could barely stand the thought of eating anything, let alone the fat-soused fare on the menu. She should’ve known better than to stuff her face so soon after her gaunt internment.
With painful slowness, she cleaned up her mess and left the bathroom. Holding her breath against the beef-thick air, she readied to head back to her booth when two men came in from outside. Familiar by their finely-tailored suits, though she didn’t recognize the faces. Bearing the insignia she’d helped create on their lapels. She stopped so suddenly, she bounced back a step.
Of course, they were looking for her. She was stupid for not thinking of this.
Her mind raced with the same bleak friction as one who runs despite an approaching dead end.
No way out the front entrance.
Assuming the back door was through the kitchen, she would have to make it past the men either way.
No windows in the women’s bathroom, and probably none in the men’s.
Saliva thickened to flammable jelly in her throat. The Flame burgeoned at the bottom of her belly, stretching to hook a claw into her esophagus. She shuddered with the fruitless effort it took to cage it.
As the men surveyed the diner, recognition lit their faces. Her heart slunk into her belly and was devoured by flames.
She knew of one way out.
Their hands twitched to their belts in synchrony, and the guns tucked there flashed like eager stars, the cold fire Ayden harbored in her own chest. But the rest of her was alive with heat, desert fumes that writhed just beneath her skin, and she ached to let it out, she burned.
“Ayden, get your hands up.”
Resentment sparked. They called her by her first name like they knew her, like they were old friends…
Her body clenched, and the men were too late to pull the trigger. The screams of the diners cut off in a nebula burst. Incineration. It rushed out of Ayden’s pores like volcanic spew, blistering, bittersweet agony that shook her to her bones.
Spent, she fell to her knees. The flames towered above her, triumphant beasts licking the ceiling. The bewildering heat didn’t burn her—a dire vessel with the coals set free. Too cold to burn.
She crawled outside as the walls crumbled and staggered from car to car until she found one unlocked. It took several tries—she and Jackson only ever watched online tutorials—but eventually, she hotwired it. The half-full tank would have to be enough.
Despite her urge to jackknife out of the parking lot, she drove calmly. Not a single car passed by, but she sat for a minute at the edge of the highway. Her hollow body was filling up again, this time with something different. Voices clamored within her. Wordless cries. Scorched bodies swimming in her blood. She closed her eyes, but the tears slipped out anyway.
You are the destroyer of worlds.
She’d thought he was being a dick at the time.
Ayden pulled slowly onto the highway.
Megan Dorei is a part-time housekeeper who spends her free time writing, thinking about writing, and listening to music to reinvigorate her writing. She is a horror devotee, beer enthusiast and lover of all things retro. She has been a contributing author to Sirens Call Publications’ Bellows of the Bone Box and Mental Ward: Stories From the Asylum, Storm Moon Press’ Big Damn Heroines, Dark Moon Digest #14, Flame Tree Publishing’s Gothic Fantasy: Dystopia Utopia, and most recently in Mad Scientist Journal: Summer 2017. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her fiancée and a ghost that insists on hiding their remotes.