Even now, at the end, they elude me, those human fires that consume every soul. I look at the lives I have taken, my husband and my son, and feel nothing. I reach a hand out toward the inferno consuming our home, watching my flesh rend and blacken, and feel only warmth, like a man tanning at the beach on a sunny day, like a couple cuddling beneath the sheets in winter. I ponder the loss of all I knew, all I was supposed to care for, try to feel the grief this would inspire in most men… I seek some evidence of a human flame inside me, but alas, all that remains is the emptiness I have always felt, the void I have always known.
“My apologies,” I say to the bodies whose loss I hoped would bring me to grief, “It appears this has been a waste of your time.”
A waste. What difference then are they, am I, from the rest of life? A failed experiment, left to propagate itself on the surface of a world we are destined to destroy. Its pointlessness I saw from an early age, when I first learned I was different. My parents mistook my silence for precociousness, my stolid nature when I scraped my knees when falling while riding my bike, or climbing a tree, for maturity. But in truth I was always numb. Therapists told me I simply had trouble accessing my emotions or being honest with myself, but what was there to access? Whenever I reached down into myself, tried to find the core that made me me, I saw nothing. Felt nothing. As I grew older, watching others discover themselves, I learned to pretend, I chose a self that would serve me best.
Mom and Dad were secretly relieved when I told them I was gay, it explained my aloofness, it was an easy panacea for my… ‘difference’. And when they held me and wept and told me they still loved me, false tears came easily to my eyes, a crocodile’s pretense. Don’t worry. Those tears said. I am like you. Vulnerable like you. I am not a threat. Men or women, in truth, made no difference to me. Sex, and lust, and passion, it was all a matter of creating the desired friction until we reached the end result. Being a man myself, I figured they would be easier to please.
In high-school, and college and academia beyond, I excelled. My peers were all distracted by human concerns, by self-doubt and jealousy and fear, human fires that still did not touch me. So I was hailed as ‘gifted’ and even ‘a genius’ when ‘indifferent to the human condition’ just as easily sufficed. The truth is, if unburdened by weakness, humanity’s capacity for brilliance is nigh limitless. And so I choose a profession, chemistry, pretty much at random. And through a single-minded focus, became its pinnacle.
Even that did not satisfy me, even then I remained unburned.
And so it was, one day, when drinking at a club that served the orientation I had chosen, I met a kind man. Attractive, but not overly so, with one of those round faces and guileless smiles that I knew my parents would like. I turned to him with a smile I practiced often, it radiated warmth and hunger and joy (perhaps I should have been an actor), and soon enough we were in his home, exploring and consuming each other. My groans and grasping hands indicated lust, but the coolness inside did not abate, my detached eye remained unburned.
Soon enough, after a year of coupling, and meeting the families, of flirtatious dinners and sex and sex and… sex (he was voracious, and mistook my detachment for ‘being a fucking badass’ as he put it) we were married.
A home followed, and after a brief adoption process, a son. This, I thought, would surely be the flint that lit my soul’s damp tinder. Caring for him, watching him grow, teaching him to ride a bike and watching him fall and wail like I never did. I did all these things, and still: nothing. Despite the nights we spent playing, or reading stories to him aloud, or falling asleep together in front of the TV with one Pixar movie or another one still I remained unburned and colder than the space between stars.
I began to wonder, what would it take for me to feel something? Would it take losing all life has given me? All that I have won but do not value?
The thought came to me more and more often. I woke during the night, arms around my husband, and contemplated what it would feel like to end his life. Picking my son up from school, playfully tousling his hair like a caring father should, I imagined his lifeless eyes staring up at me, and what sorrow they might inspire. I wondered, fantasized, about what it might feel like to feel anything, anything at all.
And so, from this wondering, I hatched my plan.
It was easy enough, to find the agents of my life’s end. I was a chemist, the modern day apothecary, and I was also Romeo seeking an escape. It was all too easy to engineer my own demise. I stole from work a chemical that would act as a painless poison to the ones who believed, falsely, I loved them. From the hardware store I purchased gasoline, figuring seeing my life go up in smoke both literally and figuratively would make it all the more likely that I might care.
Returning home I prepared dinner, lacing their meals with a lethal dose of the cocktail I prepared. I smiled at my son, squeezed my husband’s hand and stroked his thigh (a promise that would remain unfulfilled) as they ate. I watched their movements slow, and their heads droop…
My son falls first. “Daddy? I feel… funny…” He whispers weakly, before plopping face first into the pasta I made. My husband looks at me through heavy-lids, only barely comprehending what is happening.
“Baby? What did you-? What did? Why?” And he too leans back and is still.
I stand and take their pulses. They are dead, my love and life lost. And yet… I remained unburned. I feel nothing.
Moving their corpses to the living room, arranging them with a space in-between on the couch, where we sat many nights enjoying the lie that we were a normal, happy family. I take the canister of gas and drench the room in accelerant. Then I strike a match and set my world ablaze. An angry orange scar grows and multiplies as it hungrily guzzles the life I built. Sitting between my boys, I wait for the flames to reach us. Wondering if maybe physical pain would spur my grief. But as the heat grows, as the fire begins to focus its hunger on consuming us. I feel no more heat than the desert, than the sun on a fierce summer day.
Then I look down at my boys. The fire warps their flesh. I stroke my husband’s cheek, and remember the smile on his face the day we met. Remembered how truly beautiful and open it was. And I myself begin to smile, a grin gracing my lips, unbidden for the first time. And looking back, I see the joy we felt was real. I look down at my son, his eyes closed, never to open again. I tousle his hair through the fire. I remember the first time he tried to ride a bike, how he fell and scraped his knee as I had. How loudly he cried in contrast to my precocious silence. For the first time, I feel the human flames of love and sorrow fanning in my heart,
What have I done?
I look at my hands, at the fire that licks and blisters them, and at last I feel that too. Finally, I am burning.
I smell my skin charring; I feel my blood boiling; I hear myself begin to scream.