Everything is Kindling by Nathan Goodroe
They are starting to suspect I am the one who burns toilet paper in the third floor stall. It is me, of course, but I work hard to cover my tracks whenever I burn. I think of it as a testament to my diligence even in the face of impulsivity.
No one ever found the ashes from the pile of boxes I burned behind the dumpster or the last of the sticky notes in the corner of the supply closet. I do it right: I clean up, I do it after most everyone has gone, and I don’t let myself enjoy it for too long.
I didn’t start enjoying being at work until I started to light things on fire. I’ve started using my lunch breaks to research what I could and could not burn. For example, an award I received for a database migration is mostly galvanized metal. If I burned that, I could inhale poisonous gas, so I resist burning it. The chunks of foam from my seat, on the other hand, aren’t “good” to burn, but they keep me going on hard days. I only light fingertip-sized pieces of them when I can’t slip away from my desk. The fumes make me lightheaded, but it’s a good lightheaded.
I slip into my boss’s office while no one is looking. He is on a college visit with his son and won’t be back until Friday. I keep the lights off. It’s the afternoon and everyone is probably going to start packing up soon, anyways.
I have wanted to burn Jerry’s succulents for a long time. I tried imagining what it would feel like for a few weeks. I went to the store last week and bought some just to see if that would satisfy me, but I think there is something about burning his succulents that really get’s me going. I want to feel the ash between my fingers once I’m finally done. He loves them so much he wouldn’t know what to do. He’d probably cry.
I pour the rocks and soil from all three onto the carpet and set the plants aside. It’s so hard to burn plants while they are still alive. Everything about them does their best to cling to life. I knew I wouldn’t have the time or the patience to kill them and wait for them to wither. I rip them into small pieces and pull out my travel-size shampoo bottle I have filled with lighter fluid. I cover Jerry’s plants until they ooze when I poke them. The whole room smells like alcohol, and I am in heaven.
Someone walks up to the door and cuts the light that is coming in from underneath. I hold my breath and try to retrace my steps. Did I leave an ember going on my desk? Did someone see me come in? Maybe I lost track of time again. If they come in and ask what I’m doing I would say that I heard a crash and came to see what was going on. I was so concerned I didn’t even bother to turn a light on.
Whoever it is slips a presentation printout under the door and vanishes.
I miss my chance with the alcohol. If you want the fluid to light, it has to be exactly the right time or else it doesn’t mix with the air and you can’t do shit. I missed my magic moment. All I have now are wet cacti and dirt all over the floor.
The presentation, however, is now here. I glance it over as I rip it up and make a little pile of pie charts and decades of histograms. The kindling was ready so I light a match underneath the former slides and watch it start to glow. My heart beats in a spot behind my ears.
It is finally starting to happen. I toss succulents on top. They heat up, and little pockets of light fluid busts through the skin and makes little fireworks that shoot sparks onto the carpet.
There are papers all over his office. There are stacks on his desk and binders full of it on the bookshelf. There is paper everywhere. I could really nurture this fire for a long time. If the paper supply starts to get thin, I could start chopping his desk up and feeding bigger and bigger pieces that would keep me warm in the night.
My thoughts are interrupted by a sound that I can’t stop hearing. I’ve set off the fire alarm. It’s not a big deal. I hear people starting to grab essentials and leaving the building. I am the fire, so I know it’s not that bad. I could burn a few more things, stamp out the fire, and walk out to our department’s designated meeting location.
I throw a binder from his desk in and it gets bigger. The alarm gets louder.
Everyone is supposed to be out of the office in under six minutes. I could explain that I was caught in a staircase with a door that wouldn’t open. That would explain my lateness to the rendezvous point. Maybe I’ll say I went the wrong way, remembering the path I took when I was in system support. I could keep my streak of burnings alive and not be caught, but I have a golden opportunity in front of me. It’d be a shame to see that go away.
I keep a small list of things I have wanted to eventually burn: Karen’s meticulously kept birthday calendar, Aman’s service plaque, and the headphones Doug uses everyday. I go around to each desk and grab the things I want to throw in the healthy flame. I am going to put everything up in smoke and cross everything off my list. I carry an armful of collected goodies and drop them in the roaring campfire that is taking up Jerry’s office. I smash picture frames and throw them in too. School pictures and family trips are gone like that. I imagine the charring and melting and become erect. God, it feels so good to burn something. I don’t know how I’d gotten by with the small sissy fires I was doing before. This is living.
I have to cover my own tracks. Everyone would be suspicious if they came back to find all their stuff gone and my desk the same. I grab my computer, my files, and my award and throw each thing in. Everything pops and crackles like acorns in there.
Firefighters are coming. It’s been long enough, and I think I hear stomping up the stairs. I lock myself in. I don’t want to have everything I have dreamed about, worked for, be put out. I could drop from the window in a few minutes and land in the bushes with just a broken leg or a vertebra out of place. Or maybe I could tell them that I don’t need rescuing. I think I know what I’m doing since I build the thing.
I reach my arm across Jerry’s desk and throw all the papers up. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. They float down and back up, touching the flame and catching alight. White and gray snowflakes fill the room alongside the haze.
I close my eyes and take the smell in. Carpet, papers, computers, clocks, calendars, awards, and most importantly small succulents disintegrating and filling my lungs. All the while I’m breathing in and out. In and out.
© Nathan Goodroe 2018
Nathan is a writer and high school mathematics teacher in Atlanta, GA. His short fiction has appeared in a few places in print and online. He is currently working on a novel.
Everything is Kindling was read by Heather Lee Rogers with music by Travis Tench on 11th September 2018 for The Liars’ League Songbook at the Brooklyn Book Festival.