Roger sat on the bench outside the library on Spruce, smoking a cigarette and wishing he was as clever and as thin and as skilled with women as Dave—Dave who’d played football for Penn State; Dave who drove a silver BMW; Dave who was having an affair with Agnes, whom Roger had lusted after for years.
Across the street he saw a couple, probably the same age as Agnes and himself—or Agnes and Dave—come out of the pizza place, laughing. The woman kissed the man on the cheek and patted him playfully on the ass, unaware that they were being watched, as they walked to their car. Or his car. Or maybe even her car, Roger supposed, and the man was driving out of an excessive need for chivalry.
Before they got in, Roger held the red tip of his cigarette up to his right eye, smushing the left one shut, causing his mouth to grimace childishly. He held the cigarette close so that it appeared to be the same size as the couple’s faces and he burned them each horribly.
He lowered the cigarette. They were now, Roger was surprised to find, terribly disfigured: Blackened skin stretched, cracked and oozing, over their skulls; singed tufts of hair; eyes—lids burned away—white and bulging from their sockets.
Still grimacing, frozen in a sudden mistrust of his senses, Roger watched them as they climbed into the car, turned left on Maple, and disappeared behind the shopping center.
Two teenagers began to laugh as they walked past him and a toddler being pushed in a stroller twisted its face at him before Roger released his facial muscles, opened his left eye, and un-grimaced. He looked at the cigarette in his hand. Then he finished it. Then he dropped the butt onto the sidewalk and stepped on it, his heel swinging back and forth as his foot pivoted on the smear of ash.
Sharon paid the girl at the counter and took her coffee to a table by the window perched on a perfect rectangle of sunlight. From the shelf in the back of the shop she’d taken a book of poems she’d been reading a little at a time for a week. She liked it but didn’t want to buy it at the bookstore.
Someone had left a newspaper on the table, neatly folded. She picked it up to move it to an unoccupied table. Three bird feathers, dappled with black blood and grime, dropped un-feather-like into her lap.
She stood quickly, bumping the table and sloshing some of the coffee out of her cup. The feathers stuck to the front of her sky blue skirt, held by the tackiness of the blood. Repulsed, she brushed them off with her hand, leaving a black-red streak on her skirt. She felt her face redden and her eyes burn and begin to get wet. She took shallow breaths, afraid she might sob or gasp if she filled her lungs too deeply. She hated to cry in public because of the kind of isolation it created: instead of being someone people didn’t notice, she became someone people tried not to notice.
She went to get some napkins from the counter. As she walked, she tried to master her breathing—a trick Dr. Blumenthal had given her for her jangling nerves when she was still seeing him. She’d been ashamed about going to therapy—was still ashamed at having gone—kept it a closely guarded secret, as if it was an admission that she was somehow unfit to deal with life. “Everybody needs therapy,” Dr. Blumenthal had told her. “You’re crazy if you think you don’t.” His joke to try to put her at ease. It didn’t work.
When she returned to her table, her breathing was nearly normal. The front of her skirt was clean and the feathers were gone.
She wiped up the coffee.
Roger again sat on the bench outside the library. He sat there each day to smoke after lunch, because he couldn’t in the office. It was a good time of day to sit and watch people. Women. Although lately all the women made him think of Agnes and all the couples made him think of Agnes and Dave and all the men made him think of Dave and all of them pissed him off.
He watched a woman walking on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. She was beautiful. He would have enjoyed looking at her, at the plunging neckline of her dress and the curve of her hips. Would have enjoyed the way her heels shaped her calves—if not for Agnes. You know I’m a married woman, she said to him once, after he’d opened up to her. Not too married to screw Dave, were you, he thought now.
He took out a cigarette and as he held the lighter to the tip, he watched as the beautiful Agnes-not-Agnes woman walked through the flame. The hem of her skirt caught fire, and her hair. She kept walking as the flames fluttered over her body like glowing birds. By the time she had reached the door of a coffee shop and disappeared inside, she was cocooned in fire. He continued to watch the door. A few minutes later, the woman reemerged. The fire was beginning to die out, having all but consumed her. Her head was as bald and dark and twisted as a vulture’s. He watched her walk and smolder down the sidewalk until she turned a corner and was gone.
Sharon sat at a table in the coffee shop reading the book of poems from the shelf. She looked up after reading a particularly beautiful passage about angels and saw, to her surprise and horror, a woman, wrapped in cloaks of flame and smoke, walk through the door. Sharon gasped and almost screamed. She rose quickly to do something, but she didn’t know what. Help? Leave? Back away? Scream hysterically until someone called for an ambulance or a fire truck? But nobody else in the shop seemed to notice. A few customers and the woman behind the counter had looked up when the fiery woman entered, but the customers returned to their coffees and books and computers, and only the woman behind the counter was still watching, smiling professionally, ready to take the burning woman’s order.
Sharon unsteadily returned to her seat, but didn’t take her eyes off the woman, watched her hairless, lipless, noseless skull through the flames, saw the air above and around her shimmer and swim; the skeletal fingers wrap around the paper cup, blackening the store logo, and watched her walk back outside. Sharon looked from table to table. At the woman behind the counter. One woman returned her look, smiled, and turned her attention back to her newspaper, and a man who seemed offended tried to stare her down.
If no one else had seen what she had seen—if it hadn’t happened, what did that mean? Stress? A tumor? Might someone have put something in her coffee? She did not want to see something like that ever again, even if it wasn’t real—and yet, just the day before, she could have sworn she saw two peoples’ faces melt into horrible, burned masks as she sat at the same table, reading the same book, and looking out the window. She’d convinced herself that she’d been mistaken—a glare on the window, a trick of reflection, or was it refraction—but now she couldn’t be sure.
She would go home. She would call her office and say she wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be in to work today. She would gather up everything blue—colored pencils, the blue plastic game pieces from Parcheesi, a pair of azure tea cups and matching saucers, silk hyacinths from the vase in the kitchen, her blueberry pie scented candle—she’d gather all these and arrange them on her coffee table. She would change into her sweats and lie on the couch and listen to Bach. The cello concertos.
The first time Roger called her by her name—“Hello Agnes,” he’d said—it sounded wrong. He was immediately attracted to her, but Agnes. Agnes is simply an unattractive name. Aggie is no better. And Nessie. What woman wouldn’t be offended by being called Nessie? There must, he supposed, be other beautiful Agneses, the odds forbade them from all being ugly, but the name made him think of his alcoholic, chain-smoking grandmother who lost a nostril to skin cancer. She looked like an Agnes. His Agnes—Agnes Cramer—might look like an Agnes when she gets old, but Roger would be old, himself, and might not notice that she looked like an Agnes. Don’t we fix faces in our minds? Choose not to see changes? he wondered.
He had gone home and conditioned himself to think of Agnes as a beautiful name.
When he was alone, he whispered it, as if he were about to kiss her—pictured himself taking her face in his hands, his lips brushing the near-invisible hairs of her earlobe. Oh, Agnes.
He downloaded the text of Romeo and Juliet onto his computer and replaced all the Juliets with Agnesses so it became Romeo and Agnes.
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Agnes is the sun.
He had it printed and bound at a print shop and read it and re-read it.
He rented a karaoke machine. Recorded a tape of himself singing love songs written for women with more appealing names, revising them.
Ag-nes mabelle…these are words that go together well.
Ohhh Agnes…our love…holds on…holds on.
It took eleven days, but the name Agnes had become as beautiful to him as she was.
If he could make the name Agnes attractive, he would make himself attractive to Agnes.
Sharon came home again instead of going to work. Again she’d been in the coffee shop. She had the book with her but she was too nervous to read. She was looking out the window onto Spruce Street when a couple walked by, the man’s arms round the woman’s shoulders, when they slowly began to burn until they were lost in flame, just like the woman who had come into the shop the day before. She got up and left quickly and when she walked outside, she saw that man. Not a man. Sitting on the bench outside the library. A monster. He had one eye, as big as a softball, in the middle of his face. Horns like a goat’s looked as if they had ruptured through open sores on his bald, leathery head. A tail hung down from the bench, twitching at his feet. He was watching the couple, exhaling blue smoke from a snout like a pig’s.
She ran the six blocks home, sobbing as she took great, gulping breaths. People looked at her as she ran, then they would fix their eyes on something else, something in the distance, and let her pass by. She had hoped these visions were nothing serious—a temporary occurrence that would just go away on its own. She pictured herself going to a hospital, calling Dr. Blumenthal—she’d get Paula, Dr. Blumenthal’s receptionist. I see burning people. And monsters. She couldn’t even say the words out loud to herself in her own apartment.
Something was wrong with her brain. Either she was crazy, or she had a tumor that would probably kill her.
She began to gather birds—three small photographs of finches that hung in the bathroom, an owl piggy bank, a scarlet blown glass cardinal from the kitchen windowsill, a necklace with a dove pendant carved from ivory—and she arranged them on the coffee table and drew the curtains and turned off the lights and sat in what dark she could create at 1:30 in the afternoon. She listened to a CD of Japanese flute music.
As Roger walked to work, he found a dead bird on the sidewalk. A robin or a sparrow. He looked up and down the street, saw nobody, and swept the bird’s body into his newspaper and carried it under his arm.
As he walked, he heard a voice. Right beside him. Or behind him. So close it could only have been his own.
What have you done?
But it wasn’t his.
It sounded scared. He was scared, too, walking to his office with a dead bird, scared of what he was going to do, of what would happen if he was seen, but it was a woman’s voice. Agnes’s? There was a woman hurrying into the coffee shop, but she was half a block away—he probably wouldn’t have heard her if she’d hollered—this was barely a whisper.
Calm down, he thought.
When he got to work, he took a pair of scissors from his desk and carried them and the newspaper and the bird into the bathroom and went into a stall. With the scissors, he cut the body of the bird in two across the breast. It was more difficult than he thought: the scissors wouldn’t cut through the feathers; he could feel and hear the tiny bones snap and shatter; its insides spilled out onto the paper.
He was early. The office was quiet. He put the top half of the bird’s body in the top drawer of Agnes’s desk, and the bottom half in the bottom drawer of Dave’s.
After lunch he burned everyone he saw.
She’d seen the monster again. Walking down the street. He was carrying something. Something dead. Something pure. There were wings, feathers. She couldn’t make it out—couldn’t tell if it was big, larger than the man, or if it was small enough to hold in his hand. It was changing. It was both, like in a dream. Her senses were failing her. She was too far away to see clearly, but didn’t want to be closer. She’d never felt so alone.
Why am I being made to see these things?
Sitting on the bench outside the library Roger thought of the bird and the screaming and the crying and he recalled with embarrassment that the last thing he had given Agnes was at the office Christmas party. It caused him physical pain that he could not reach out and take that moment back—sacrifice another. He’d presented her with a poem:
I park in front of your house
On my way home from work
And from my car I look in your window.
I won’t get home until late;
You’re wearing blue
And it’s an hour drive.
He had hoped she would find it romantic—that after reading it, she’d understand how he felt about her. Oh, Roger, she’d say. Oh, Agnes, he’d whisper as she surrendered into his arms. Instead she grew cold. Told him they should keep things professional. “You know I’m a married woman.”
She gathered angels—ceramic Christmas decorations with glittery paint; a heavy, golden brooch that had belonged to her mother; a small reproduction of William Bouguereau’s The Song of the Angels, which she kept on her nightstand; a feather she’d found under the windshield wiper of her car after what she was sure should have been a fatal accident—she believed the feather to be that of an angel who had saved her. She put on no music, but listened.
Ethan Tinkler teaches Creative Writing and English at Atlantic City High School in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickenson’s MFA program in Creative Writing and was a reader for The Literary Review for three years. His work has appeared in Rosebud, Spittoon, Storyteller, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Reverb, White Pelican Review, and Main Channel Voices.
Photo: Rob Woodcox, “The Burning Point.”