Ed glanced back at where Marisol stood, just behind him. “You should get out of here,” he said. He had to try. One last time.
“Not a goddamn chance,” she said without looking at him. Her gaze was fixed on the fiery form before them. Ed couldn’t tell if she was frightened. He had never been very good at that sort of thing.
“At least stay back, then,” he said. He walked forward without waiting for a reply. Forward towards the grinning fire. It lurched high above them. An enormous bonfire, reaching up to scorch the sky. The heat pressed against his flesh as he forced himself to march towards it. Its sweaty fingers clawed at his face.
“She didn’t know if you would come,” the fire-Kristen voice roared all around him. It oozed with delight, like rendered fat dripping into charcoal. “I told her you would find me, that you needed to find me. I wrapped my tongue around your soul. I could taste your need.” The voice laughed. As it spoke, Ed saw flicker’s of Kristen’s form coalesce among the flames. A single eye. The twist of a smile. The more she spoke the clearer it became. Was she forming a body among the fire, or was he merely learning to see?
“Yeah, I’m here,” said Ed. “Who is this ‘she’ you’re talking about?”
Two eyes formed in the fire and turn upwards, towards the sky. “She watches us. She has watched us for a long time. Even though it’s been some time since we deserved watching.”
“Okay,” said Ed.
“She woke me up,” said Kristen. “Just like I woke up the others.” She smiled. “She is much better than I was, as you saw. The fire was always there. I felt it, sometimes. It burned around the edges of my dreams. I would wake up on cold nights, sweating. The taste of cinders on my tongue. It was always there. For me it was fire. It could have burned me to ash. That’s why I stayed asleep. But she is a master. It was always there. But she awakened it.”
A gasp from behind him jolted him to the realization that Marisol was still there. He glanced back and saw her drawing shapes in the air with her finger, a puzzled look on her face. He wanted to ask her what the hell she was doing. But the fire called. He turned back to face it.
“So you did all of this for her?” he asked. “What does she want?”
“Oh Ed,” a hand reached out of the fire. He didn’t pull away. It tenderly stroked the side of his cheek. Just as it had done – as she had done – when her hands were still covered in skin. “She wants you, of course.”
“What’s so special about me?”
Kristen laughed. “Nothing at all! You’re not special. You’re the least special person there is. That’s why it found you. You are empty inside.”
Ed shook his head. This was getting nowhere.
“Fine,” he said. “Whatever. She can come find me if she wants. I’ll go with her. I don’t care. Just get out of this town. Make what you did to these people go away.”
Kristen laughed, and the fires surged. “What I did to them? And what do you think I did to them?”
“You…you made them follow you around. They became obsessed with you. They turned into zombies.”
“You were following me around,” said Kristen with delight. “You were obsessed with me.”
Ed bit down on his lip. “You…they stopped wearing shoes. They got frostbite.”
“They stopped caring about the cold,” Kristen cackled. “Sound familiar?”
“No,” Ed whispered. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He didn’t want to believe it. Something Marisol said flashed into his mind. It’s like they’re all turning into you.
“No,” Ed said again.
Sparks burst out of the fire, tiny orange pinpricks of laughter.
“This town has been your shield, Ed,” said Kristen. “Your cloak and your armor. It hid you from her. From everything. You’ve been using them. You’ve always used them.”
“No!” Ed cried. “It didn’t…it all started when you got here. It was all fine, before that.”
“I started to thaw through your frozen hide,” Kristen said. “That’s why she chose me. That’s why I was sent. You were so cold, and I had fire. To melt your cold heart,” she giggled as she said this. “You couldn’t hide, anymore. Your passive shield would no longer work. You had to turn it up. Or rather, it had to turn it up.”
“The final secret.”
The word tickled the inside Ed’s brain. He wanted to reach in and scratch it. To make it go away. Marcy had said that word, back in the woods. “The secret will be reunited.” And Ed knew what it meant. He didn’t want to. He didn’t understand it. But he knew. Somewhere inside of him, he had always known.
“So that’s what this is about,” he said.
“Of course,” said Kristen. “I thought I could make you give it to me. That I could coax it out of you. That I could light the fire of passion, then reach it and yank it out of the thawed places in your soul.”
“You could have,” said Ed, tasting the bitter truth in his mouth. “I would have given it to you, if I had known how.”
“Maybe,” said Kristen. “But it is too deep. You are too frozen. You cannot be thawed. Not by my natural fire. But I have new fire, now. She has given me a gift.”
White-hot arms reached out and grabbed Ed by the shoulders. The fingertips seared into his skin. And it hurt. For the first time in his life, Ed cried out in pain.
“Ed!” Marisol called out from behind him.
Ed tried to turn to face her, but the arms held him fast. They yanked him forward, closer to the conflagration. Kristen’s face congealed in the flames. It was exactly has he remembered it. Hard and alive and beautiful. She stared into his eyes, and her eyes were lit as much by madness as by fire. How had he not seen it before?
“You cannot be thawed,” she screamed, “but you can be melted!”
Ed’s arms were roughly yanked upwards as Kristen’s body rose along the pillar of fire. Higher, higher, into the sky. The ground shrank away. To tops of the skeletal trees rushed past them. The heat grew hotter. He felt it pound at him like fists slamming against his flesh. He felt it pour into his lungs with every breath. He felt it snake into his blood vessels, until every inch of him screamed.
He had no idea what to do. He came here to find her. To stop her, but what could he do against this? He would have panicked, but he didn’t know how to panic. He didn’t know how to freak out and retreat into the comfort of chaotic confusion. Even among the pain and the helplessness, his mind was a clear and passive observer. Just like it always was. All he had was the plain and simple awareness that he was about to die.
No, said something inside of him. You’re not.
He barely had time to puzzle what it might be when he heard something else.
It came from behind him. And below. A tiny voice, nearly lost against the roar of the flames.
“Marisol,” he whispered.
“Ed! You have to get out of here!”
He laughed. “Not much chance of that,” he said, even though there was no chance she couldn’t hear him.
“Ed! I know why I’m here!” she called. “I’m coming to get you.”
Ed laughed again and closed his eyes. Coming to get him. That was a good one. She had always been funny.
“No!” the Kristen-fire called out. “Go away! He is mine!”
“No,” he heard Marisol say. “He isn’t.” She didn’t yell it out, this time. She didn’t need to. She was right behind him. And there was another sound. If he didn’t know any better, he would have thought it sounded like…wings?
He craned his neck to look around.
“Hi Ed,” said Marisol, grinning. And there they were. Jutting out of her back was a set of wings, thirty feet across. Like cracks in the air, filled with color and light.
“Marisol,” he said. “Where did you get those?”
“I think I’ve always had them,” said Marisol. “Only I didn’t know, because I was asleep. Ed, I think…I think everyone has them.”
“Enough!” The bonfire flared, and heat tore into Ed’s exposed flesh. Inside him, right in the center of his chest, he felt something stir.
“You found your awakening,” Kristen called out, “but I an infused with the fire of exploding stars. You are nothing.”
“I am enough,” said Marisol.
The air in front of Ed split open, right where Kristen’s fire-arms connected to his shoulders. Where the cracks in the air formed, they filled with blue and green and purple light. Thick, viscous light, like neon fog. It split Kristen’s arms open, where her wrists met her hands. She screamed.
Suddenly Ed was free, and he fell towards the ground. He landed with a thud, sending mud and melted snow flying into the air. He landed on his legs, and the shock resonated through his body.
It hurt. But not very much.
He looked up. Even with everything he had seen, even with the burgeoning fact of what he was, and the fracturing of every assumption he had ever had about the universe, it was difficult to believe what he saw.
The pillar of fire that was Kristen had formed enormous arms. They swiped at Marisol, who beat her neon-fog wings and darted back and forth through the sky to avoid them. At the same time slashes opened inside the Kristen-fire. Liquid poured out of the open wounds like magma-blood. Ed stood there, paralyzed, and watched.
Then the air right in front of him started to crack. It formed shapes, in the same Technicolor neon as Marisol’s wings. Letters.
Ed didn’t want to run. He wanted to stay. He wanted to stay and fight. He wanted to help his best friend.
“No!” he called out. Letters formed again.
Run, you idiot! I’ve got this!
“No!” he called again.
But his body started to move. It started to turn in the other direction. Just like when he played football. Just like when he fought off Ryan Sutherland in the hall, or Arnaud and the others back in the woods. His body started to act without him. It turned. It hunched down to the ground. And it started to run.
“No!” he called to it. “We can’t do this!”
Please, said a voice in his head. It was soft, and strange. And familiar. He had heard it in his head before, but he had never recognized it. Please. Trust me. We have to go.
“But she’s our friend,” Ed cried out.
I know she is, said the secret voice.
“She’s going to die!” Ed cried as his legs carried him away from the heat and the light and the horror.
It is her choice. She is awake, now, and it is her choice.
Ed fought desperately to control his arms and his legs, but they resisted. His feet smacked into the half-thawed ground beneath him. He ran. The trees whirred past his vision. He felt the heat at his back, saw the light of the fire, and tiny flashes of smaller, different light. And he ran.
You will understand. One day, you will understand.
Tears streamed down Ed’s cheeks as they ran.
It was the first time he had ever cried.