She swept in, broke up relationships right and left, and blazed out. I suspected even my girlfriend Cherry had a hack at her, though that seemed less important after she got Mike killed.
We found her in line at Taco Mucho, where six of us had gone to load up on greasy food before a party at Arcy's place. I don't remember who first spoke to her, or who invited her along, but I'm pretty sure she went home with Samuel and Madlyn that first night. Cherry, my girlfriend, kept half-jokingly grabbing my chin and saying, "I'm over here." But Cherry kept turning toward the new girl herself.
"Call me Greg," the strange girl said. Tray, who dumped Arcy when he found out she was bi, got that look on his face.
But Elaine, ever fearless, asked, "Are you trans?"
"Nah," Greg said easily. "Hundred percent cis-fem. It's short for an online name, Gregaria. It means—"
"We can guess," Elaine cut her off. But even Elaine warmed to her before Arcy's party broke up.
Greg was funny and sharp, but not mean and cutting. She treated everybody like a new best friend. She was a hugger and a cuddler, but she seemed to have a radar about how much touch was enough. Loelia hates being hugged, but Greg—without being warned—took her hand and kissed it instead. I thought Loelia would melt on the spot.
But a week later Madlyn ditched Samuel in a huge screaming fight in my kitchen, both of them yelling about Greg. Never mind that Greg had spent that evening cuddling with don't-crowd-me Loelia. In another week Loelia and Samuel were an item, and Madlyn was moving to Springdale, while Greg and David and Tonya (our one married couple) suddenly appeared inseparable.
Then Greg somehow made up with Madlyn, who came back to our gang with a new guy on her arm. Whoever broke up with whoever else, nobody stayed mad at Greg for long.
I never tried Greg myself; Cherry and I had been doing the monogamy thing for several months. Cherry's idea, though I took it more seriously than she did. Only Elaine and I seemed to notice: Greg soaked into our group like butter into a hot waffle, but brought no friends of her own. Elaine asked her about it; Greg said she'd only been in town about a year, and hadn't happened onto a gang like ours.
What made Greg the woman that all eyes—and most arms—turned to? Her figure was okay, her face forgettable, her skin sallow, her hair a short lifeless brown mop; my Cherry was far prettier, much better built. But Greg had a spark that drew people: the campfire at the circle's center, the lead singer of the band, the sunflower bobbing above the dandelions.
One thing she flaunted: She was unusually limber. She only stood an inch or two over five feet, but she often greeted tall guys by kicking up one leg to hook her heel over their shoulder, then hugging them close. Her hugs always felt overheated, as though a fire burned under her skin.
She tried that leg-split on me, hugging me into her crotch; Cherry about had an aneurysm. But I just thought, She touched first, and, There's plenty of headroom—we were in Wendy's—so I cupped her ass and tossed her over my head. She was light as an empty paper bag; her hips were broad but actually bony under her jeans.
She landed balanced on my shoulders, her hands brushing the ceiling; from there she did an astonishing shake-and-shimmy routine that had even Cherry cheering her on. The assistant manager came out to fuss at us, but Greg hopped down lightly, gave him a peck on the cheek, and ran to the counter to order her usual dozen Baconator doubles with fries.
That was another thing: She drank less than most of us, but she ate like an army of orphans. Her dozen Baconators were a standard order; "I'd get Triples if I could fit 'em in my mouth." Any party she came to, she brought a bag of food: chips, snack cakes, nuts, cheese. She brought pounds of hamburger and bacon and bags of buns to every cookout.
And then she always ate at least half of it herself. Aside from broad hips she was skinny, her arms and legs nearly stick-like, but I never saw her go more than half an hour without eating. "I just burn it all off," she said. She drove Arcy, who needed to shed about fifty pounds, absolutely nuts with envy.
"That bony bitch must eat fifty thousand calories a day," Arcy stormed. I'm not sure how much she was exaggerating—if at all.
Tonya said Greg even ate in bed after sex. "Even during sex," Loelia's kid brother Mike added.
"Oh, that's gross," Lo said. "I don't need to know that."
"No, really," Mike said, blushing. "She keeps Golden Oreos on the bed!" Greg shrugged her bony white shoulders, grinning, and leaned on him. He was built low, dark, and stocky, and I had a sudden unwantedly clear image of the two of them in bed; they must have looked like a meatball screwing spaghetti.
Greg often picked up the food tab for everybody in our gang, never worrying about the cost. She had plenty of money, though she didn't work. "I'm under an NDA," she said. "As long as I keep my mouth shut, the checks come in."
"You only shut your mouth to chew," Elaine shot back. But Greg never talked about her past.
It was clever Elaine who first remarked that Greg's fast lifestyle seemed a little desperate. "She's really living the every day is your last thing, y'know?"
I thought back over the last month. Was Greg cheery and full of life, or was she running from something, feverish and frantic? "What, you think there's something wrong with her?"
"I bet it's something about that NDA," she said. "She's got some godawful secret and she can't stand it."
If Tim hadn't turned up, I might never have found out. He was a grad student, a tall lanky guy with close-cropped blond hair; some months back his workload had picked up and he'd dropped out of our fluid group. Now he reappeared at one of Arcy's steak-and-beer parties.
When Greg arrived, carrying about twenty pounds of ribeye and a bag of potatoes, she grabbed me and spun me around—hiding behind me, I realized later.
"That guy talking to Lo," she said. "Is his name Timothy?"
Flustered, I answered, "Huh? No, that's Tim. I mean, I guess his name's Timothy, but nobody calls him anything but Tim."
"Where'd he come from? Did Lo bring him?"
"He used to be around. He's in school."
"Still?" I was going to ask what she meant, but suddenly her eyes filled with tears. She shoved the two bags at me and said, "Take this shit. I've got to go." A minute or two later, she texted me: Please don't say anything to anyone.
So she had a history with Tim. I gave Arcy the steaks and made some excuse for Greg. Nobody paid attention except Mike, who'd been with Greg fairly steadily for weeks. He followed her out, not buying my lame excuse.
Nobody else noticed but sharp-eyed Elaine. She quietly asked me, "Greg got a problem with Tim?"
"Seems to. She asked me not to let the world know."
"Tim only came to the University about two years ago. That means about a year before Greg came to town. Do you remember where he was before that?"
"UA Fayetteville, I think."
"Fayetteville. Do you know Greg's last name?"
"I don't even know her real first name."
"You don't? It's Hannah." She edged away, tapping at her phone, before I could reply.
For some reason Cherry blamed me for Greg leaving early, and got furious when I said I couldn't talk about it. I lashed back at how she seemed way more concerned about Greg than someone in a monogamous relationship should, and she slapped me. I went home alone that night, hurt and pissed off, and didn't see any of our group for nearly two weeks.
Then Tonya and David, our married couple, showed up at my door to say that Keith, Madlyn's new guy, was having his twenty-fifth birthday party at the House of Hog, and I was by God going to be there. I was bored with sulking, so after only token resistance I let them drag me out.
Everybody was there. Cherry ran up and hugged me, apologizing for not calling and for slapping me. Elaine hooked my arm and said, "We need to talk later." And Greg, to my astonishment, was absolutely glued to Tim. Mike was being a sullen third wheel with Loelia and Samuel, his eyes often on Greg.
I did a head-bob toward Greg and Tim, and Cherry told me, "They've been together for a week. She's crazy about him." Cherry seemed a bit pissed; monogamy was more of a style choice for her than anything.
I couldn't talk to Elaine until after the party broke up and a bunch of us went to David and Tonya's house. "Greg's up to something," she said without preamble. "She's screwing him, but she hates his guts."
"Look at this." She showed me an article on her phone: UA Student Cleared of Rape Charge, the headline read; the date was nearly three years ago. "She accused him of raping her. Cops said she fabricated the whole thing, just harassing him. She left U of A. Three years later, she's banging his ass."
"Okay, she's nuts. What'm I supposed to do about it?" Elaine just threw up her hands and walked away.
I wasn't convinced enough by Cherry's apology to take her home.
I watched Greg at the next few gatherings. She'd practically given up physical contact with anyone besides Tim; Lo dubbed the pair "Gregothy". Her face was pale, and her cheeks flushed; she looked genuinely feverish. But her energy and appetite were unflagging.
"She seems fine to me," I told Elaine one Saturday in Tray's back yard.
"She's up to something, I'm telling you."
"Well, if she is, it's not anything to do with us."
But it was. That afternoon Mike, who still hung with us but always stayed across the room from "Gregothy," suddenly blew up.
"Why do you let him touch you?" he screamed at Greg. "I know what he did to you!"
Greg went whiter than ever. The fevered red of her cheeks looked painted on, like a wooden doll. "You don't know shit," she snapped at him.
"Yeah, I do! My sister's a prof at Fayetteville!"
"I didn't know that," Cherry said to me. "Jesus, Arkansas's a small state." I shushed her, apprehensive but not sure why.
"You said he raped you! He got you expelled when the cops didn't believe you!"
"That's not why I was expelled." Her voice was low and icy and bitter.
"And I didn't rape her," Tim put in. "I oughta kick your ass just for saying that." But I saw Greg shoot him a look of pure white hatred while he was focused on Mike, and pure startled fear shot through me. What the fuck? Was Elaine right?
But when Tim turned back to her, Greg did her leg-high hug and gave him a huge kiss, grinding her crotch against his thigh.
Mike really lost it then. He charged at them, knocking Tim aside, knocking Greg right down in the grass. "Don't touch her!" He swung wildly at Tim, landing one punch in the ribs that left the taller man gasping.
By now Tray, Keith, and I were moving in to separate them. Greg was yanking at Mike's arm—he never even noticed her—so I grabbed her around the waist and lifted her aside. Her skin was burning hot. She was even thinner than I remembered—she felt nearly weightless, but I put that down to my adrenalized state.
When I dropped her and turned back to the fight, Tray was lying on the ground; Mike had accidentally backswung an elbow into him. I threw my arms around Tim, about to punch at Mike. Instead he kicked Mike hard in the belly, then kicked my feet out from under me.
Tim broke my hold and delivered another vicious kick to Mike's gut. Mike fell, curled into a ball and groaning. Loelia shrieked; Elaine held her back.
Tim's ear was bleeding, and he hugged his ribs. He pushed through us toward the gate to the front yard, limping and muttering, Lo's profanity pursuing him. Greg followed quickly, throwing a look of inexplicable triumph over her shoulder. Somehow, in the last moments of the fight, she'd grabbed a plate of Polish sausages from the table; she'd already gulped down most of one. Moments later, we heard Tim's car roar away.
Keith helped Tray to his feet, then they both pulled Mike into a chair. Madlyn came out of the house with a wet towel, but he pushed her hand aside, lurched to his feet, and staggered toward the gate. Madlyn tried to follow, and he waved her back angrily. We let him walk away.
In the amazed babble that followed, none of us noticed we didn't hear Mike's car. Not until ten minutes later, when Madlyn and Keith were leaving, did her screams alert us Mike had collapsed by his car at Tray's curb.
He was barely breathing, his pulse weak and fluttering. Keith had already called 911; an ambulance hauled Mike away within minutes. Elaine followed, carrying the distraught Loelia after her brother.
About an hour later, Elaine called me. Mike had died of massive abdominal hemorrhage from one or both of Tim's kicks. "She set this up," she said. "I don't get why, but Greg wanted a fight." I made some confused noise, and she went on, "Maybe she wanted Mike to kick Tim's ass. Mike's a lot stronger. Was." She hung up abruptly, crying.
We caught a shit storm from the police. Even Loelia agreed that Mike had swung the first punches; Tim had defended himself. But Mike's blood-alcohol level was .06, not DWI level—but completely unjustifiable for someone still three months shy of twenty-one.
The cops ripped us several new assholes over letting someone underage drink with us, and for letting him out of our sight after such a severe beating. If Mike and Lo's parents hadn't intervened, Tray might have been charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor, even though Mike had already been drinking before he arrived.
Tim and Greg got their share of official grief. All Sunday and Monday they holed up in Tim's apartment, refusing to take any calls from us or answer the door.
But Tuesday afternoon, while Tim was at work, I stood at his door, texting Greg, Not leaving till we talk over and over. She texted back: Take me to wendys. Moments later, she opened the door and stepped out.
In only three days, she'd grown positively skeletal. Her hair hung lank and dead. I could see the bones in her forearms and around her sunken eyes. Her febrile cheeks flamed more brightly than ever, but her forehead and throat were white and dry.
At Wendy's, mostly empty in mid-afternoon, the counter guy didn't even wait for her to order. A bag of Baconators with fries was on the counter in minutes. She took the bag and me to a table by the front window. Handing me one burger out of the dozen, she started taking huge bites, talking as she chewed.
"Doesn't matter any more," she began. "Fucker deserved it." More huge bites. "Not Mike. Timothy."
"Did he really rape you?"
"Ruined my life. Fucking murdered me. All I have left is their goddamn checks, and those stop if I say anything. I could go to federal prison for talking to you."
"Doesn't matter any more," she repeated. "It's done. I finally gave it to Timothy."
She'd been a low-level flunky in a research program, she told me, something the Department of Defense funded. She'd been doing basic lab work on human subjects: blood tests, metabolism and weight measurements, and so on, without any real knowledge of the project's goals. She'd met Tim there. They'd dated twice, then she'd turned down any repeats. He'd taken it badly.
She didn't understand details, but her computer records developed problems: data corrupted, strange files appearing. She'd run antivirus sweeps and found nothing. But the program director threatened to "drop me if I kept screwing up."
Tim had offered to fix her computer, but once in her dorm room he'd assaulted and raped her. When she called the police that night, Tim claimed she'd been harassing him, and revealed a series of emails sent from her university account. She'd never sent the emails.
She handed her laptop to DoD experts to prove the emails were sent from somewhere else. Instead they found hacking tools and evidence she'd violated the project's security protocols. In her room they found stolen project materials, including top-secret drug compounds.
Threatened with expulsion and prosecution, she'd blamed Tim for hacking her computer and planting evidence in her room. "He must have been screwing with my laptop the whole time," she told me.
Then she'd collapsed during an interrogation—and the DoD slapped her in quarantine. Tests showed she'd been contaminated with something. The DoD refused to say what; they didn't prosecute, but warned her she'd go to prison if she told anybody. They gave her a lifetime "disability pension."
"Fucker poisoned me, somehow. He must have put the shit in my room even before he raped me."
"So why are you telling me now?"
"Because it's gonna kill me. Whatever Timothy exposed me to, it's burning me up inside. I think it was some sort of metabolic enhancer, maybe supposed to make soldiers faster and stronger, Captain America shit; all it really does is make me eat forty times a day. If I don't eat, it burns me up." She was already on her eighth Baconator. "I wake up every couple of hours, all night long, every night, starving to death, burning up. I've got about fifty pounds of Oreos in my room right now."
"Jesus." It sounded absolutely crazy, but I'd never seen anybody eat the way she did. Yet she looked absolutely ravaged, like the last stages of unsuccessful chemotherapy.
"And it's contagious," she said. "After I got expelled, I went to North Little Rock, and a guy I dated there got the same thing. But he couldn't eat as much as I did, and he was a really heavy sleeper. One night he caught fire in bed. Burned right up; nearly burned me up too."
At that point I was ready to call bullshit on her. "You said Tim poisoned you before he raped you. Why didn't he catch it from you then?"
"Fucker used a condom. Rapists all use condoms these days. No DNA evidence." She shook her head. "Been trying to get him in bed for weeks, now. He loved having me kissing up to him, doesn't know I'm sick—I even told him I've got an IUD now. But he wouldn't fuck me. Three years ago he raped me; last week I couldn't give it to him." She smiled slowly, a dark, frightening smile. "But kicking Mike to death got him all hot. We spent all weekend in bed—unwrapped."
I'd taken two bites of my burger before her story stole my appetite. Now she picked it up and finished it off.
"I made sure Samuel and David and Mike always used a condom," she said. Her eyes suddenly filled. "Not that it saved Mike."
"What about Tim?"
"He ate two pounds of spaghetti and two boxes of my Ding-Dongs last night, and woke up starving at four. He took three more boxes of Ding-Dongs to work. He's fucking got it."
"So what now?"
"Now I wait for him to burn." She stood up. "Keep away from us. He's just getting what he deserves." Before she left, she stopped at the counter for another bag of Baconators.
I didn't know what to make of Greg's story. But that night I dreamed I found a metal handle on my chest. It opened into a furnace glowing orange, its hot blast roaring up my throat like a chimney. I poured in water; it glowed hotter. To appease it, to cool it, I fed fuel into my chest: shoes, books, my phone, dirty laundry. If I could feed it quickly enough, I knew, the furnace blaze would die.
I threw in giant hamburgers I found in my sock drawer, then the drawer itself, then my other drawers. Crying, I threw in Bart, the cat we'd had when I was twelve. I pulled up thousands of flowers from the yard; the furnace cooled but wouldn't die. Heat poured up my throat, burning my mouth and my brain, tasting of crocuses and chili powder.
Cherry sat on the couch, watching Frozen for the hundredth time. Desperate, sobbing with fear, I pulled her feet-first toward my chest. In the way of dreams, she shrank to fit the small hatch. I watched her burn, feet to shoulders like a softly-screaming cigarette.
At last I shoved in her head and neck, still screaming quietly, and slammed the hatch. I gulped down a glass of cold water, but it felt like flames in my throat, and tasted of Cherry.
I woke with my throat still afire, tasting of the chili Cherry had cooked for last night's supper—my worst attack of acid reflux in years. Shuddering, my face wet, I stroked Cherry's hair softly, hardly believing she was here. It was the first time she'd stayed the night since she slapped me; we'd done nothing but cuddle together.
Somewhere between Wendy's and now, I'd come to believe at least part of Greg's story: She was burning up from some Department of Defense magic formula. But I couldn't tell Cherry about it; she'd never believe a word. I needed to talk to Elaine.
Elaine's the only one I trust with my phone's location; even Cherry and I aren't linked (and she doesn't know Elaine and I are). Now I saw Elaine was apparently having breakfast at the Waffle House by the university, an unusual choice.
I dressed quietly. Cherry grumbled when I kissed her goodbye; she had an afternoon shift and wouldn't get up until eleven.
Crossing town, I texted Elaine I'd meet her for breakfast. My phone chimed an answer; I didn't look, busy navigating the scramble by the lake. (Some day the city council will admit these "historic" old houses aren't as important as a decent cross-town thoroughfare.)
Only after I pulled into Waffle House did I see that Elaine had sent back, FFS NO STAY AWAY. People huddled behind cars, phones aimed at the big windows. "Oh, shit," I said, and drove up on the sidewalk.
As I trotted toward the door, a guy in an apron grabbed my coat sleeve. "Don't go in, man." I heard sirens; a flashing Argenta PD car turned off Holly toward us. I shook off the cook and jerked open the door.
"See you got my message," Elaine called dryly, sitting cross-legged atop the counter. "Nice of you to drop by."
"Elaine, what the fuck?"
She jerked her head toward the grill. "Ask her."
Nervously I peeked over the counter. Several slices of bacon curled on the grill, black and smoking. Greg sat on the floor, holding a small, hefty-looking revolver. It was aimed at Tim, who leaned against the shelves beneath the register, surrounded by reeking puddles of vomit.
"Hey, dude," Greg said. "Come to see the fun?" Her face was hollow, her voice weak. Her skin flushed red, then paled, then flushed again. Clumps of her hair had fallen out around her.
I looked from her to Elaine. "Somebody's having fun?"
Tim coughed. "Screw the jokes—get that gun away from her!"
She casually raised it to point at Elaine, who hardly flinched. "Nobody's taking my gun."
I spoke slowly. "You won't shoot her." The twisting of my gut said I wasn't so sure.
"Yeah, she will," Elaine said. "But nobody's gonna take a chance on me getting hurt, so she won't have to." She spoke steadily, but her hand shook where it fiddled with a salt shaker. "And I'm not gonna leave till she's safe."
"Dead's pretty safe," Tim pointed out. He coughed again, retching up brown bile.
I realized he was as pale as Greg, with the same feverish color in his cheeks. And though long sleeves covered his arms, his neck and hands looked thin. "Jesus, it's true," I said.
"Yeah, Greg told me she'd told you," Elaine said. "I asked her to meet me for breakfast; I didn't know she'd bring a gun. And him."
"Why aren't you eating?" I asked Tim. "You're in a fucking restaurant!"
"Can't keep anything down," he groaned. He glared at Greg. "I don't get how she can eat the way she does. I ate two waffles, and threw 'em back up. I ate a steak, and it came up, too."
Greg nodded. "That's what happened to my boyfriend in North Little Rock."
"What's happening to you?" I asked.
"Exothermic reaction," Tim said. "Metabolism's screwed up, an artificial chemical reaction. But it makes too much heat, you gotta dilute it with ordinary blood sugars and shit. And I can't eat enough."
"From what I saw happen to Eric," Greg remarked, "I figure Timothy's got maybe ten minutes, maybe half an hour before he catches fire." She shrugged. "I can keep the cops talking that long." Her free hand snaked behind her, returned holding a metal pitcher, the kind the cooks kept waffle batter in. She raised it to her lips and drank deeply, gulping down maybe a pint of raw batter. "After that I don't care." Drips of dried batter spotted her T-shirt and crusted the ends of her lank hair.
In the two or three minutes since I came in, two cop cars had pulled up; officers were talking to people outside. Now one of them cautiously approached the door. "Remember," Elaine said to me. "I'm too scared to try to escape." She slid to the lower inside counter where the waitresses poured drinks and assembled orders. At that height, the morning sunlight made her squint and struck red lights from her dark hair. She still acted calm, but I caught the glint of tears.
I told the cop a girl had a gun on two of my friends. He ordered me outside. "Shit, no!" I told him. "I'm staying with Elaine; anyway"—I pointed to Greg out of his sight—"she trusts me to talk to." I climbed up to sit where Elaine had.
The sun slanted in the windows, glared blindingly off the polished tables. Starting to sweat, I pulled off my coat and tossed it over the jukebox.
"I wanna talk to my mama!" Greg suddenly shouted, her voice rasping. "Get me a phone! Get Mama on the phone!" She shouted a name. "She's in Little Rock! I wanna talk to her!"
The cop backed out, assuring me that negotiators were on the way. "Get Mama!" Greg shouted again. He vanished, obviously rattled. Greg laughed hoarsely. "Oughta take half an hour or so before they figure out she's dead."
Tim screamed, "You crazy bitch! Why don't you just shoot me?"
She gave him the deadest look I'd ever seen. "Cause I want you to burn. I like watching you sit there so scared you're pissing your pants." He had; I smelled more than vomit and waffle batter and burnt bacon. "You won't even come at me. If you grabbed at the gun I'd have to shoot you, but you're too scared even for that, even to get it over with."
She looked up at me. "I don't need the gun, not really. He's gonna burn anyway; he can't eat enough. But I want to watch; I don't want him stuck in quarantine where I can't see it."
The cop had come back to the door, to ask for my phone number, clearly ashamed he hadn't thought of it before. I felt bad for him; I doubt there've been three hostage crises in this town in his lifetime.
For a little while nothing happened except for Greg eating a stack of untoasted bread and Tim moaning about how hungry he was. She shoved the batter pitcher toward him; he took a few gulps, then twisted sideways to retch it up on the floor. Greg grinned, her cheeks hollow.
He looked at me. "I'm burning up, man," he groaned. "Gimme something to drink, for Chrissake."
A pitcher of ice water sat behind Elaine on the waitress counter. I reached for it, and Greg pointed her gun at me. "Don't you." I learned there was a whole new level of fear between seeing the revolver pointed at Elaine and seeing it aimed at me. I could die here, in this smelly kitchen, hot sun on my dangling legs.
I leaned back, my hands raised. Greg, satisfied, buttskooched sideways to a glass-fronted refrigerator, where she took out a jug of milk and a tub of blueberries. She chugged half a gallon of milk, then started eating blueberries by the fistful.
When my phone rang, I nearly fell off the counter in panic. It was the cop outside, telling me a negotiator was on the way. I barked at him not to bug me till he had real news.
"Hey!" Greg glared at Tim, whose eyes had half-closed. "Don't you pass out on me!" She threw blueberries at him; they left purple stains on his cheek, in his blond crewcut.
He looked at the scattered berries, then picked one up and flipped it toward Elaine. "Night Howlers!" he screeched, then started dizzily singing.
Elaine stared. "What the—"
I realized he was butchering Shakira's song, "Try Everything", from Zootopia. I'd never seen someone delirious from fever, but there was no mistake: Tim was raving. Greg threw another handful of berries, but he didn't notice, his eyes rolling up toward the sun dazzles on the ceiling tiles.
"No! Timothy!" Greg shouted. She kicked him, threw the whole tub of blueberries. "You sonofabitch! You fucker! Wake up! I'm killing you, you sonofabitch; don't you ignore me! Don't you fucking pass out! Timothy!"
He slid onto his side, then his back, lying in his own vomit, unfocused eyes darting back and forth across the ceiling. His skin was turning red, like a fresh sunburn. His lanky frame seemed swollen, as if his muscles were inflating.
"No, fuck no!" Greg grabbed the water pitcher she'd threatened to shoot me over, and poured it directly on his face—not all at once, but slowly enough I could see his skin pale as the ice water bathed it. "Timothy! Wake up!"
For a moment, she must have cooled his brain. His eyes focused. "Greg?" he said, in a tone of complete mystification. "Zat you?" Then his eyes rolled back and he began to moan and cry out wordlessly. Vomit gurgled from his mouth.
His blood-flushed hands bulged like he wore padded gloves. His sleeves and jeans legs stretched taut as sausages. His abdomen began to balloon, and suddenly I saw steam jetting from his mouth and nose. A moment later, the crotch of his jeans began to steam as well. His bladder must be boiling; I had a sudden, awful image of his dick screaming like a steamboat whistle.
Greg was slapping his face, still yelling for him to wake up. I grabbed Elaine's wrist and launched myself backward off the counter, toward the entrance. Elaine and I tumbled to the floor; I heard her shriek of pain as her arm broke against the jukebox.
But I've got no reason for regret: An instant later, with the bang of an overinflated basketball and the low whapping sound of a heavy bedspread being shaken, fire erupted over the counter. Greg's yells broke off; she stood up, her head covered in liquid fire, her hands swiping madly at her face.
Flames gushed higher, surrounding her; she toppled backward, out of sight. Droplets of fiery liquid fell around me and Elaine, spattering the floor between us and the exit. Contagious! I thought, panicky. I scrambled up, dragging Elaine by the hand; she continued to shriek as I pulled her down the row of booths toward the end windows. Greasy black smoke billowed after us.
The air was already becoming unbreathable, superheated and foul. I saw bundles of paper napkins burning on the shelves. Greg stood again, staggering blindly; over the counter I could see her flaming from head to waist. Her feet slipped and she went down, blazing arms flailing. I never saw any part of Tim, thank God, except flying gobbets of fire.
Another napalm-like burst threw flaming droplets into Elaine's hair; I dropped her to grab glasses of orange juice and cups of cool coffee off nearby tables, drenching anywhere fire touched her. I bent and grabbed her under the armpits; window glass shattered around me as I pulled her up, still screaming in pain. (I learned the next day that one of the cops outside took a panicked shot at me, thinking I was attacking her.) With the inflow of fresh air, the fire roared higher.
At the end of the row of tables, I grabbed a syrup pitcher and hurled it at a window; plastic, it bounced back. I tried again with a coffee cup and a couple of plates, then finally shattered the glass with someone's abandoned iPhone thrown edgeways like a ninja star. Two cops, catching on, met me outside the window; we were able to get Elaine out over the broken jags of glass. I clambered out myself, coughing and seeing black spots, to collapse into the gentle arms of paramedics.
Elaine and I both said as little as possible to the cops, either about Greg's "infection" or her botched vengeance on Tim. I've got no idea what sort of "incubation" period there might be, but I don't think either of us was exposed enough to catch it. But men in black suits will hear about Greg's fiery death, and come to question us.
I want to get this out there before we disappear into quarantine, something even our friends wouldn't find remarkable in the current COVID panic.
I don't know how long I have. In a TV show, the black SUVs would've shown up ahead of the fire trucks; in real life, the government can't track persons of interest that closely. I figure they probably monitored Greg's email and Facebook by computer, a live human checking on her every few months. But death by fire will get their attention.
Elaine should be writing this; even stoned on painkillers she's smarter. But not only did I break her arm, I sprained her other wrist yanking her around. She can't type for a week at least, and I don't think we've got that long.
Maybe it's the whole brush-with-death thing, maybe it's our shared secrets; shit, maybe it's just being the two smartest people in the gang, but Elaine and I are closer than ever. I want to see if we can make a go as a couple.
But I can't break up with Cherry right now, despite my suspicions about her lack of fidelity. She's been staying with me as I recover from the fire, sleeping on the couch because I cough so much. It wouldn't be fair to break up, not until I know for sure about her.
See, last night I woke up around one o'clock, to hear Cherry banging around the kitchen. I staggered out there to find her scrambling a ton of eggs. She gave me an apologetic hug; her skin was burning hot, feverish. Her cheekbones stood out like knives. "I didn't mean to bother you," she said, "but I woke up starving."