“So,” Lawrence said, grinning wider than ever. “Who wants to know how I did it?”
Everyone was silent. Kore was dimly aware of Anna’s eager, impressed grin, of Madison’s confusion, of Ted’s skeptical indifference. All she felt was a growing fear in the pit of her stomach. Someone would say he’d rigged the gas grill somehow to respond to the sound of him snapping his fingers, that he’d just had a timer, some mundane thing like that.
But she had a good view of him as the grill burst into life, and she’d the thin stream of fire burst forth from his fingertip like he’d been holding some kind of flame-throwing squirt gun. And maybe he had something just like that. A little pocket flamethrower of some kind. A special wrist-mounted machine with little pads that sat on your head and picked up your brainwaves and fired when you thought about it. Maybe this was his killer idea. This was going to be his startup, a product he could sell to idiot teens and the military both. Want to set something on fire from a distance? There’s an app for that.
Except she had had that perfect view of him, and there had been nothing in his hands. No gun hidden in his palm, nothing on his wrist, no flame-projecter on the back, and certainly no little electrodes on his head. Which meant, what that the fire had come from nowhere? From the gods? Was he some kind of smug savior, Prometheus in a polo come to disrupt traditional methods of fire distribution. Why were we letting ourselves be slaves to the established deities and Big Fire?
It had to be something mundane, some clever little trick she hadn’t noticed. A drone, maybe? Was that possible? Well, it wasn’t impossible, and that meant that somebody would be the first to do it, and why couldn’t it be Lawrence?
That had to be it. That had to be it, because the simplest explanation, the one her brain kept coming back to was so big and uncomfortable and threatening that she could feel her world buckling under its weight. Her head pounded and her vision blurred at the edges every damn time the word even came close to slipping into her brain.
“How’d you do that?” she said, her voice a hoarse croak. She forced a smile to her face. “I’ll bite, Larry Bird. How’d you do that?”
Lawrence smiled, eager to keep playing the part of the showman. “So, Benjamin Steinman. He was a smart guy, right? Real ‘outside-the-box’ kind of thinker. You know how you get modern philosophers and scientists who try to blend the spiritual and the scientific? They hear about the Hindu concept of Brahman and they link it to the Big Bang? Well, that was what Benjamin was doing thirty, forty-some years before it was cool. And the really impressive part is that back before the days of the internet, ol’ Unky Ben found a group of like-minded folks and got in touch with them.” Lawrence’s voice had been slowly rising, his words coming quicker, like he was getting more excited as built to some kind of grand revelation.
“You’re not answering the question, Lawrence,” Kore said.
He fixed his eyes on her and smiled. His tongue darted from between his lips, a quick pink blur that moistened his lips and tasted the air. Like a lizard. Or a snake.
“I’m getting to it, Kor, I’m getting to it. Anyway, this group of folks experimented with what you might call pseudo-sciences. Lots of New Age hippie bullshit, mostly. Crystals and ley lines and orgone and all that. The others didn’t have Benjamin’s scientific background and his keen analytical mind. They were a bunch of rich wannabe intellectuals content to light candles and hold seances and do whatever the hell else it is that rich wannabe intellectuals do. Who knows.”
Anna coughed. Lawrence didn’t notice. “They were useless as far as getting results, but the ideas they discussed kindled Benjamin’s desire to really understand the universe through a different lens. He had a couple of patents under his belt that had made him rich, so he traveled the world speaking with experts and recording his experiences and collecting all the obscure books he could get his hands on.”
“Wait,” Ted said. “Wait, wait, wait. Hold on. You said that you didn’t really know the guy and that your parents never talked about him. How do you know all this?”
Lawrence waved away Ted’s question. “Almost there, almost there. So once Benjamin had had his fill of travel, he came back home. Nobody in his family wanted anything to do with him, so he took what was left of his money, bought the land, and had the cabin built to his specifications. Spent the rest of his days here, doing his research and his experiments.”
“The rest of his days?” Madison said. “You mean, he died here?”
“He died on the property, but he didn’t die in the house.” Lawrence smirked. “Don’t worry. It’s not haunted. Anyway, Ted, to answer your question, I know all this because I found one of his journals–”
Anna coughed. Loudly. Lawrence rolled his eyes. “Anna and I found one of his journals in the master bedroom the other night. I’ve been up ever since reading it–”
“Damn, dude. You didn’t go to sleep at all?”
“And I’ve mastered a few of the basic concepts.” Lawrence flourished his hand and a gout of flame burst from it, like a splash of gasoline poured onto a bonfire. “Benjamin called this phenomenon the ‘autonomous conflagration.’” The others looked at him silently. “What? He was a friendless scientist that lived alone in the woods. Of course the man called it the autonomous conflagration. There was no one around to tell him that that name would never sell.”
“Hold on, recap,” Madison said. “Your creepy-ass mad scientist uncle built a cabin in the woods, filled it with dead things and old books, and then died here.”
“That’s a little–”
“And you found one of these books, what, hidden in a secret compartment? And now you can do magic?”
“It’s not magic, Mads, it’s–”
Madison stood up. “Nope. That’s it. I’m out. I’m going inside.”
Lawrence’s face fell at that. Kore blinked in surprise. Magic at his fingertips and her disapproval still cuts through his ego? “What?” he asked, his voice rising, a hint of a petulant child’s wine in it. “Why?”
“Uh, sorry, Larry, but I’ve seen this movie and I know how it ends. The beautiful blonde is always the first to die.”
Madison’s words hung heavy in the air. Kore looked at the faces of the others, processing them just as she processed the beautiful blonde girl’s words. Lawrence was pale, his wild eyes sobered by the realization that his wits had failed him, that for the moment he couldn’t charm his way out of Madison’s observation. Ted was silent and inscrutable, and Kore was not even sure that he’d registered Madison’s comment; his own eyes kept darting between Lawrence’s face and the fire that still burned behind him.
Anna arched an eyebrow. “Wait, you think the chick that always dies first in horror movies dies because she’s blonde and beautiful? Like, the moral of the story is that the universe will punish you for being hot?”
No one responded to her. Kore shot Anna a look that said shut up. Anna frowned, muttered something under her breath about nobody getting her.
“That’s not the same thing at all,” Lawrence said. “Come on. I’m not summoning demons and resurrecting an ancient axe murderer here. This is energy and change! This is states of matter!” He held out his hand palm up, and a tongue of flame appeared in the center, dancing in the air. “Look at this! This is science!”
Lawrence closed his hand around the little flame, but instead of smothering it, when he opened his palm, the flame had spread to his fingertips. He fanned his fingers out, brought them together, fanned them out again. His eyes softened, and he stared down at the little flames with a smile. Like he’s some kind of a proud parent or something.
“Why isn’t your hand burning?”
Lawrence looked up from his reverie with disdain in his eyes. It was only there for a second before a fake smile replaced it. “Hm?”
You heard me, you bastard. What, are you trying to think of an answer we’ll buy? Or one that will quiet your own better judgment? “It’s science, right? Fire needs fuel. Wood, charcoal, gasoline. Your fingers. Why aren’t your fingers on fire?”
Lawrence frowned. Kore pushed harder. “Hell, for that matter, why aren’t you in pain? Even if the fire were using something other than your fingers for fuel, which it must be, why isn’t convection burning your fingers anyway?”
Lawrence snorted. “Maybe I am and I’m just hiding it. Maybe it’s adrenaline from the excitement of discovering what is essentially an all-new branch of science. Did you ever think of that, my little doubting Tomasina?”
“Dude,” Ted interjected. “No way. You’ve got no tolerance for pain. Like, none whatsoever.”
Lawrence grunted in irritation. “Wow. Thanks, buddy. Love you, too.”
Kore sighed. Let’s try something different. “Lawrence, I’m not trying to call you a liar. The opposite, in fact. I believe you. I just want you to think this through. You’re excited, I get that. Who wouldn’t be excited if they had superpowers?”
“I don’t have superpowers, damn it, this is sci–”
“But you’re not asking enough questions.”
Lawrence was silent. He held his hand before him, fingers splayed, considering the fire carefully. He sighed, and then waved his hand in the air. The flames disappeared. “I suppose you’re right. There’s more research to be done. You’ve got to go through alpha and beta before you can release, right?”
Kore blinked. She had no idea what that meant. “Right.”
“More research, then. But later.” He picked up the spatula and the tongs he’d been holding earlier and turned his attention back to the grill. “For now, who wants some barbecue?”
Proclamations of hunger filled the air. People shouted out orders for Lawrence to fulfill. Quietly, Anna said, “Hey, you’re not cooking the food with Hellfire that’s going to taste delicious but damn our immortal souls, are you?”
Lawrence stuck at his tongue at her. Everyone laughed.
Everyone but Kore.
Word Count this Post: 1,750
Total Word Count: 20,243/50,000