Hellfire by alexiuss

We were in a hotel room on a king-sized bed. The beeping sound from the alarm clock finally stopped after five attempts of slamming the snooze button. Those stolen minutes left us feeling more exhausted than before. I was groggy all morning from the long and difficult journey. Rey slept on his stomach beside me — passed out from the
jet-lag and drastic change of climate.

I stretched out on one side of the bed, switching channels on TV but keeping it muted. The news anchor forecasted the weather of each capital city; Kuala Lumpur being at 40 degrees. It was already mid-afternoon, but I was still shivering. If it wasn’t for the thick layers of warm down comforters, I might have frozen to death in my sleep.
I got off the bed to take a hot bath. From the bathroom mirror, my face looked ashen; almost unrecognisable. My palms were icy-cold. My lips and tongue cracked.

I put a third layer of clothing and rushed downstairs.

The air stifled, and the furious sun outside the hotel made me squint — not even a whiff of cloud could be seen anywhere. The whole city bathed in the bright glow of the rising sun. Almost everyone was drained in sweat, but I couldn’t stop my knees from trembling. The odd, unforgiving chill penetrated into my skin and everyone stared
as I wrapped my scarf around my neck. I looked downward as I walked. I was mortified.

I continued at a quick pace into the town. The transit hub at KL Sentral had diagrams of different zones with numerous integrated rail networks displayed on the information board. The locality was a central district surrounded by office towers, apartments, and retail shops; plenty was going on around with interesting little streets to explore. I searched for a place to settle. Across from where I stood, a stream of white smoke drifted through the window of a café. I walked closer to the entrance.

It was an unusual sight.

Smoke was swirling out of people’s bodies as if they were on fire. Light smoke crawled from children’s heads and thicker smoke exploded from the elder. Was it because of the blazing weather?

I hurried to a woman waiting in line.

“Excuse me, hi. Is, is there a fire… somewhere?” She looked at me with her eyebrows contracted. Thin smoke curled around her body.

“No, not that I know of. Why?”

“Umm… never mind, sorry. I’m Noelle, nice to meet you.” She didn’t return a smile. Her teeth clenched in anger.

“I’m Debbie. Damn, it takes ages for just a small cup of coffee!”

I glanced at the cashier and looked behind. It was indeed a queue-jumping. I grabbed a chocolate bar out of my daypack. “Here, take this.”

She unwrapped the bar with her eyes gleamed. “Thanks!” The peculiar smoke from her hair dissipated gently into thin air. It was anomalous.

After brunch, I wandered around the city. The stream of smoke still lingered, but I decided to ignore it. As a matter of fact, it was a mystified incident — my body was frosting under the heat and the rest had theirs covered in smoke. The delirium I had earlier turned to be sensible, but maybe it was due to the exhaustive journey from home.

The conversation Rey and I had suddenly came to mind; it was about an art exhibition that we wanted to visit. There and then, I decided to explore the route by myself. It may also be the best decision to avoid being called a freak if I told him about everything I had witnessed that afternoon.

The crowd was in a hurry during the rush hour at the light rail station. On the platform, passengers formed a line even though the train hasn’t arrived. Many of them looked like they couldn’t care less about the empty seats bordering the section. To the far side, my view was fixed on a guy reading a newspaper. He was dressed in a trench
jacket with a fleece hat and winter gloves; as quirky as me. While it seemed a bit absurd to wear those in the blistering hot weather, he didn’t seem to give a hoot.

As soon as the train arrived, my skin had lost its colour.

The train derailed with a flame of smoke and the explosion was visible for miles. I tried to escape through the gaps of people to get out of line, but the surrounding were at a standstill — no extreme fright, no prompt of mass evacuation. It was just a delusional tragic. I tried to remain calm. The hectic was straightened out afterwards and I managed to secure a seat aligned sideways near the window.

“May I sit here?” A baritone voice cornered to an empty seat beside me.

“Err… sure.” It was the newspaper guy. I read through his appearance.

“Sir, are you feeling cold?”

“I believe you’re freezing in the heat too,” he replied.

“How do you know?” I crawled my clammy fingers under the bag.

“By your attire obviously. I’m Winterhawk, and you are?”

I tried to cease the uncontrollable laugh after hearing that name. The reflection of my nonconformity complemented it. “I’m Noelle Simmons, thanks for mocking.”

He cackled with glee.

“Nothing’s weird here. In fact, we’re lucky to be unique in the eyes of others.”

“What do you mean? Why lucky?”

He folded his newspaper. “Did you see anything ridiculous today?”

“Umm… please don’t think I’m crazy. I actually saw —“

“— smoke coming out from people’s bodies, right?” He interrupted.

“Yes! God! Did you see it too? What’s happening?” I bounced, seeking to yield the mystery. “I thought I was imagining things!”

“Those smoke,” he paused, “they are what’s smouldering inside us. We expose smiles on our faces, as if tragic never existed. We’ll never be perfect. We shed blood and tears for happiness. We bury our anger, lies, frustration and revenge deeply.”

“But… we can’t let that conceal all the good things in our lives. Even the nicest people have their limits,” I confronted him with my disagreement.

I looked through the window and gazed into the distance. Several cutting edge skyscrapers and classical colonial buildings fenced the cosmopolitan atmosphere. It was a harmonised scenery, but like most places, it suffered from overcrowded and congested traffic. My attention later drifted to the man beside me.

Our eyes met again.

“Hawk, does that mean the smoke resembles what they’re experiencing? What about us? Why do we have the opposite effect? Or am I dying?”

“No. And like I said, it’s a blessing in disguise.” He tried to keep my senses.

“I’m scared… I really am. Look at that pregnant lady. Does it mean she’s hating her unborn baby? That’s insane!”

“Noelle, don’t worry, they are harmless. This may sound inappropriate, but try to embrace it. It’s a reality check of our lives and our behaviour.”

I looked away. My eyes darted back and forth to the door. I just wanted to get out of the train.

“Where are you heading to? I can show you around,” he said.

“Annexe Gallery. Next is my stop. Come and walk with me for a while.”

“Sure, I’ll walk with you.”

At the Pasar Seni station, there was a great rush at the door. Many passengers switched places with each other as one got on board and another left. The thunderous noise of the train wheels passing over the tracks disappeared into the distance. I studied the Google Map on my phone while we floundered along a line of passers-by who travelled through the busy street in a loop. I observed plenty of multi-ethnicity food and handicraft stalls along the semi-decayed sidewalks. The traffic moved at a considerable speed, but they didn’t seem to be in the mood to make ways for any pedestrian.

For Rey and I, this was our first trip as globetrotters traversing to Southeast Asia with a one-way ticket. I wanted to record every moment, but who would have thought I became a pathfinder with a mysterious man on the second day of my trip — both with heavy coats under a tremendous hot sun.

“Hey, look at that!” Hawk pointed to a crowd.

Near the crossing, a group of police officers tried to calm a mob. Some of the passer-by ran and barged through the riled up crowd. The street was barricaded. A car’s windshield was shattered and broken glasses splintered on the road. People shouted at each other; some carried banners to show protest. They had poured into the street to
express their frustration and demanded to halt the spiralling cost of living. The sunny sky was swallowed by a veil of smoke curling out from their bodies; I could barely see their faces. Further across, several people were recording the scene. I could feel waves of blazing heat as I got closer, forcing me to back-off.

“The heat is getting intense, hopefully no one gets injured.”

I told Hawk I had never seen anything like that. I wished a sudden rain would extinguish the rocking flames.

“They’re just proving a point. At least they’re not hiding,” Hawk said. “But without a solution, it builds nothing but destroys everything.”

We distanced ourselves from the chaos and continued walking alongside the busy street next to Central Market.

“You should know Noelle, underneath the sun, you could see sweat; underneath the heat, you could see smiles. The prettiest smile hides an injured soul. And that’s scary.”

I stared at him in silence.

My phone buzzed several times, but I dropped the call. It was Rey. He was worried of my disappearance, but I wasn’t prepared to answer the call. Among the mass of people, I looked from one person to another.

“Is everything alright?”

“Hawk, I really have to go now. I don’t feel okay being here.”

“Hmm… Sure, I understand. Here, call me if you need anything.” He wrote random digits on a crumpled paper. “And don’t worry Noelle, you’ll be fine.”

After about an hour, I reached the hotel lobby. A sea of anxiety stretched deep down, and all I could think about was to keep my knees from buckling under my wobbly body. I couldn’t figure out any logical ways to break the news to Rey. I needed him to understand and be by my side to go through the madness.

“I’m back! Do you want to go for early dinner? I have something to —”

Rey looked at me and smiled.

“Hey, doll! Give me a few minutes, I just need to freshen up. And what’s with the coat? It’s hell-burning!”

My heart palpitated at the front door. It triggered a fight-or-flight response and my vision was almost blurred. I stricken in silence, staring at Rey in disbelief. The darkest and thickest smoke overshadowed his body. The plumes of black smoke sneaked their way out fiercely like a volcano erupting with the pungent smell of heat. The intensity was so furious and murky; worse than the chaotic crowd of protesters.

It felt as if everything was bound to be against me.

I snatched the paper and phone from my pocket and started texting:

Hawk, something terrible. Darkest grey of smoke all over my fiancé! He’s never a bad-tempered person. Should I check on him? – Noelle

My eyes were glued to the phone. My right foot tapped over and over while stealing a peek at the reflection of mirror top of the headboard.

No! It’s dangerous! He had buried it at the deepest. That’s a strong pressure of heat, you will get yourself hurt.

I was not convinced by his answer.

I’m scared. I need to know what’s going on. Maybe he

“Doll, who are you texting with?”

My phone slipped away from my hand.

Rey appeared behind me without a warning, and I pretended I wasn’t listening. I pushed the thoughts out of my mind. He grabbed the access key from the side drawer. “You ready? Let’s go.”

“Honey,” I grabbed his arm. “Is there something going on in your life?”

“Huh? What are you talking about?”

“Is there anything that you are… I don’t know, upset about? Or disappointed? Are you stressed out at work?”

“Why? What’s the matter, Noelle? Can we talk over dinner? I’m starving.”

“No! You better tell me what’s wrong!” Dinner became the least important thing at that instant. I ought to know. His emotions were walled up behind a mask of coping. All I wanted was to snuff the heat out from him, just like Debbie’s, the girl from the coffee place.

“Go on! Tell me!”

“I’m not sure what you’re looking for, but yes, something is wrong. I don’t even know why I am here…” He cleared his throat.

“What is it?”

“I carried through myself all these years by hiding, pretending, smiling — even when I don’t want to. I made myself to believe this is what I’m destined for. With you… Us.”

“Rey Snider, you can’t just give up on us!!” It felt as if I had known what was written in his heart. “We can fix whatever this is, and we will find ways to make it work. Nothing has stopped us since we were kids.”

“That’s the problem.” He turned away.

“Sometimes, you need to distance yourself to see things clearly. With you, everything was planned in advance that I couldn’t decide for myself — my own life. I’m not happy with where I am right now. It may be hard for you to accept, but I can’t go on living this way. Do you know how difficult it is to live a lie every minute of your life?”

“Well, you have lied for 5 years then, Rey.”

My eyes were burning.

“And in that 5 years, I found my soulmate; but you didn’t.”

I stormed out. It felt useless to dwell on the small token of sorrow and misery.

That night, I felt even more stranger to myself than I did during the day. I was lost. The inescapable truth had no settlement. The muddle was endless. My consciousness almost came to its end. I stopped my pace and rested on an
uncomfortable blue seat outside the bus terminal to catch my breath. The street light casted a glow; strong enough to silhouette a few people making their way across the road. Despite the cold night, I could still see smoke from every passer-by behind the haze of black clouds. The city became an unfamiliar place as if the buildings and trees
had gone to bed.

I tried calling Hawk several times with no luck — his line was disconnected.

Words from Rey spilled indelible marks. Do people change over time? I drowned in my thoughts and I lost my strength. I wasn’t good enough for him.

I was awakened by the sound from the intercom; it was already 6 o’clock in the morning. I had fallen asleep at the station from the burnout. That morning, I could feel my blood circulate to almost every cell in my body. I could finally feel the warmth in my hands and on my face. My body had recovered to its normal temperature.

I felt sane.

The air was contaminated by the smell of fumes that came out from the busses. I leaned against the metal bar behind me and gathered my day-pack. It was a huge relief that none of my belongings were missing. I made my way through the bustling busy street. I observed people smartly dressed in their work attires; men and women hurrying
towards the train station down the street. I paid full attention to every face — they greeted me with sincere smiles, but there was no smoke emanating from their bodies. I looked around and discovered that the universe had returned to its ordinary.

Is this really happening?

I rushed back to the hotel. I had to look for Rey. So many thoughts that I needed to let out of my head.

“Rey, I’m back! Gosh! Do you know? Something weird has — ”

The bed was empty. The room was a mess, but no backpack could be seen.

Rey had left.

It wasn’t a dream, but a crashing reality. My layers of illusions had burnt down from the heat and all that was left was — the cold truth.

I had a strange feeling when I left the place. It wasn’t only because I missed Rey, but I also missed the person that I was.

The world would not be the same, ever again.

#

It was weeks after that I got bitten by the travel bug again and booked another one-way ticket — this time, to Thailand. It was useless trying to change the past, so I opted to just deal with it and move on. The solitary moment had taught me self-respect, and to stop shooting an open wound. It was from the pain that I had found the courage
to let go.

I hadn’t been in touch of Rey. I acknowledged the fact that Hawk probably never existed. Since that incident, I never shed a single tear even though I was drowning inside. I realised somehow, the strange oppressive heat and smoke that I anticipated from the human’s bodies were meant to separate my soul from the one that kept me alive.

I adjusted the straps on my backpack to relieve the pressure on my shoulders.

There was an announcement asking all the passengers travelling to Bangkok to check in at Gate B12 with their boarding passes.

I stood inside an elevator leading to the upper floor. In between the voices of the young and old, another traveller tapped my shoulder. Her face looked puzzled.

“Excuse me, hi. Is, is there a fire… somewhere?”

Farahrina Ali is an introverted Sith Lord who enjoys coffee with a good book, quotes, backpacking and alternative rock music. Occasionally rambling at farahrinaali.com
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