Samuel’s eyes felt hot and dry and sticky, like they were cooking in his head. Hell, they might be, he thought, and then immediately regretted it. The fire was all around now, a roaring, swirling wall of chaotic irony, mocking his choice to scoff the evacuation orders. He made a shelter in the bathtub by soaking wool blankets in water from the pump outside–the fire had still been about a half a mile off then, but the metal was still hot enough to burn angry red welts into the palms of his hands–and he sat in it now, like a child playing at building a fort. He constantly checked the blankets for moistness, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as he did. It was so hot, he didn’t think they’d take long to dry out completely. As it was, they were still heavy and damp, but no longer dripping with the fat, dusty beads of water that rained on him in the beginning. He had filled the tub with water too, but now it was as hot as the air and he began to worry about boiling there, like a lobster.
The fire howled outside. It sounded like something living, or a hoard of somethings. Samuel could hear nothing else.
He slept, or something close to sleep, but the sound pervaded any dreams he may have had. When he woke, the water was all but gone and the ceramic of the tub was unbearably hot. It was muggy and tropical under the blankets, the air thick and difficult to breathe. He threw them off and stood up, desperate for air but it was little better on the other side of his makeshift tent. The humidity dissipated instantly, and his lungs felt like he had just inhaled sand. He coughed, putting a hand out to steady himself against the rim of the tub and then immediately pulling it back in pain.
Trying not to touch the edges, he stepped over the edge and walked, eyes all but closed against the oppressive heat. He was not going to survive this. He knew that now. The best he could hope for, he thought, was to die of smoke inhalation before the flames could reach him. He reached his front door and tried the knob, but it too burned at the touch. Coughing and almost blinded, he put his shoulder to the wood and shoved. It didn’t budge. He tried again, reasoning that if he couldn’t get out, the physical effort might at least quicken the onset of unconsciousness.
Finally, and after several attempts, the hinges gave way and he fell with the door onto the porch of his tiny home. He was confronted with a hellscape. His mailbox was still distinguishable, though barely, but he could not see past it to the road. Fire twisted and leapt and seemed to burn the very air so that it shimmered. It burned all of the colors until everything was a shade of red or orange or black.
It was a wild thing. It was mighty and unquestionable, and Samuel saw clearly what a fool he had been to think he could defeat it. It was also, he thought, undeniably intelligent. This close, Samuel felt a power and a purposefulness within the flame that he had never noticed or even considered. Or perhaps, the thought flitted through his numbed mind, it had occurred to him but he had so quickly dismissed it as impossible that it never even registered. Here though, about to be consumed, he knew without a doubt that the fire approached him knowingly. It saw him and it hungered for him. He didn’t move from where he fell, but raised himself up onto his knees, a supplicant before it. He could feel the skin on his face begin to blister, but did not turn away.
He didn’t scream until his hands began to boil, until the skin started to slide off in a thick sheet, but just before that happened he saw it. Twisting in the flames, as delicate as a ballerina and as forbiddingly graceful as a leopard, there was…words failed. A shape. A flickering void in the flames, purple-black and narrow, roughly man-shaped. The fire showed itself.