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In My Last Scorching Breath; Part I



“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host.

But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”

—Maya Angelou



            He still bore scars, livid at his fingertips, from how he had fumbled while lighting his first cigarette.


            It had been an accident, his first burn. The chilled air of that morning had scraped his lungs until his voice was raw, and his hands had been shaking—so violently that his fingers stumbled over each other, letting flames sear his skin.


            It had hurt, of course, but it had been a good sort of pain. It had blocked the memories of the night before and it had burned out all remaining feeling. It was what Will had needed then, and it was what he needed now.


            The thought of what he’d seen just that morning made his heart slam around in his throat. His stomach lurched and twisted and writhed inside of him, an untamed, beastly thing born of his own weakness and disease.


            While Will’s hands struggled with the keys to his house, his mind fought to raise walls high enough to keep ragged memories from drowning him.


            The accident he had seen on his way to work had been far too familiar. Twisted, misshapen wreckage and contorted figures smothered in their own blood, and the blood of other victims, dragged grimy fingertips through his memory. The images his eyes had absorbed earlier that day had brought snapshots of his accident back within his grasp, and his need for the sweet sickness of the fire had overcome him, smashing him around like a ragdoll for the remainder of the day.


            Will wrenched his door open, his hands falling limp to his sides as his bags plummeted to the floor.

            The memories were dark, and they consumed him, killing anything and everything else he was capable of feeling. It wouldn’t be long before he sank so far into them that he would forever be lost within their despair. He had never been able to drive them away—only the fire could do that.


            Only the fire—and as the flames dragged over his skin and left marks of untempered anger, Will momentarily found refuge from his monster.



            He’d been drunk—but far more intoxicated than he was now. In the present moment, things were a little bit blurred and a little bit bright, amplifying and bringing into focus the self-resentment that made his insides churn and his teeth clench. Amid the depths of that night, he had been too drunk to understand any of his own thoughts, too drunk to rationalize, too drunk to know that driving was asking—begging—for a life to be stolen.


            When he had woken up in the hospital, he had not known what had happened—not at first. But sluggishly, as the morphine had drained from his damaged body and his consciousness had become cloudless and lucid, he had begun to remember.


            A nurse had come in to give him more medication, skirting around the edge of his bed like a cat, and he had asked her, “What happened?”


            “You were drunk,” she’d said tersely. He could still recall the unadulterated, toxic disgust in her face. “You got into a car accident.”


            He remembered thinking that she would not be looking at him with such an unpolluted hatred unless someone had died.


            “How many?” he had croaked. His voice had sounded cracked and worn, like parchment. “Was it my fault?”


            The nurse had stared at him, the anger in her face creating lines and frown marks and crevices in her face. She seemed to age several decades in that moment. “Three,” she said, “And yes, it was your fault.”


            In the present moment, he lay sprawled on his couch, lazily flicking the lighter on and off and watching the warm glow of the flames as they licked his fingertips. It was a soothing warmth that blistered at his fingers, soft and rather bearable compared to the jarring, knife-like pain that seared through him whenever he cut.


            Even now, lying on the couch, he could still hear the peaked sounds of his family rushing into the hospital room he had lain in. They had known it was his fault, and they had not blamed him. He still hated them for that. Uninformed, irrationally, they had leaned over his bedside and told him it’d be okay and that they’d take care of everything, and he wouldn’t have to do any jail time.


            These memories weren’t as harsh as the memories of the crash, but they were no less unpleasant. They still fogged his mind, and they still turned the fire inside into a raging inferno, hell-bent on tearing him to jagged little pieces.

            And he would let him.


            He was determined to be destroyed by his treacherous fiend.



           “Pass me a cigarette, would you?” Her voice was astute and had a lilting sound to it, not unlike the rolling of wind off the waves. He didn’t have to pretend to like it. Her face was sharp, her eyes seemed to be dark caverns cut into her face by knife edges. She had an interesting face—not traditionally beautiful, but one that was fascinating to look at, and to explore.


           Wordlessly, Will handed over the second last cigarette in his pack to her. “You run out, Keahi?” he asked, drawing in a long breath of smoke.


            “I had my last one this morning,” she told him, lighting the cigarette with long, tanned fingers. “I won’t be able to afford any more smokes until I get paid, so I better enjoy this one.” She blinked lazily, like a cat basking in the sun, as she breathed in the smoke, and exhaled.


            Will was quick to notice the red, irate marks on the insides of her forearms. Nobody at work had ever dared mention them to her, but Will understood. Her weapon of choice was different than his, but the reality was that they were the same: something had gone horribly wrong, and they were to blame. 


            Keahi caught him looking. “What’re you staring at?” she asked, her voice sounding incensed beneath the casual tone that only just barely masked it.


            Will shrugged. “Your scars,” he said bluntly, and drew in another breath of smoke. “They look a little bit like mine.”


            Keahi arched one eyebrow. “Yours?” she inquired, her melodic voice rising and falling rhythmically in pitch.


            Will shrugged. “I stopped cutting a while ago. I have different methods, now.”


            Keahi glanced at him, and brushed a strand of dark hair from her face. She did not look at him, and it was at this moment that Will realized he had made a mistake.


            She had not come to terms with her own destruction, he realized. She had not accepted that she would be the beast to tear her out her own heart. She had not realized that it was she who would be her own demise. In this, she was not like him.


            Will knew he was going to die, someday, and likely by his own hand.


            It was just a matter of being ready to walk into the fires of hell and embrace the devil’s demons with open arms.



            When he arrived home, he lit some more candles and lay on the couch for a while. As the sky grew dark the candles glowed brighter, so did the clarity of his own memory. He always remembered everything at night. It seemed that darkness brought with it a hoard of new details, new sights and smells for him to agonize over, new details to remember from that night.


            In the dimness of his home, Will took the last cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He breathed the smoke in and out, wondering absentmindedly if dragons would feel the same burning sensation in their lungs when they reduced their victims to ashes.


            Slowly, he became aware of his eyes beginning to drift shut, but not aware enough of the cigarette falling from his fingers and to the carpet. 




First: I literally just tabbed over to Inkstained, clicked on the first thing I saw (i.e. the most recent thing posted, and decided to read/review that. It happened to be yours. So it's in your best interest not to expect this quick a response to something you've posted.

Second: As someone with past experience with self-harm, this was something I didn't want to read. As soon as I realized what it was about, what was going to happen, I didn't want to read it anymore -- but I did anyway. I couldn't stop reading it. That is a testament to you, as a writer.

Third: I also happen to be someone who was involved in a serious auto accident, so I tend to be fairly critical of such accounts, perhaps unfairly so. However, I found your description of events acceptable at its worst, and this is also a testament to you.

But enough about me. From the first, your imagery sunk its hooks in me and wouldn't let me go. Your first sentence is stunning in its simplicity and its perfection. Everything about the introduction of Will's character is stunning. Your descriptions are poetic while at the same time not drifting off into the land of the overly flowery. This is good. This is also why certain bits, such as the description of the pain from cutting as "knife-like" fell groaningly flat. Having only read a few hundred words of your prose at that point, I already knew to expect better from you.

The pacing and flow of the story from seeing the accident to flashbacks of his own is quite well done. Regarding the accident itself, I'd like to caution that if he "woke up" in the hospital, that implies he lost consciousness. Typically people in a coma or semi-comatose state will not remember the event upon waking, or understand where they are or why for quite some time. This is a fairly difficult thing to convey in a story and it's understandably something you (as well as most writers) gloss over if it's detail not crucial to the story -- so I had no problem with that. But I'm not sure he'd have had the awareness immediately upon waking to have asked the question he did to the nurse, especially since most such patients are given quite a lot of psychoactive and other drugs at the hospital. I'd suggest expanding time a bit in that section, if only by reference (a few hours might not be long enough, but saying it was the next day could be fine).

The bit with the dialogue could use some work. For example, it's not necessary to drop "she asked" when you've ended a quote with a question mark. The question mark literally says that the speaker is asking something, and it's unnecessary to tell the reader who asked the question when there are only two people involved. Additionally, see if you can unpack some of those adjectives and dialogue tags. A word like "bluntly," to pull one example, may be unnecessary entirely, but if you want to add a cue to the reader that your speaker is changing his tone, consider indicating a change in body language (he stiffens, he leans forward, etc.) to show the reader his bluntness rather than simply telling them this was how he said what he said. The other problem with adverbs describing a manner of speech after the fact is that they pull the attentive reader out of the story, forcing them to read the line again in the way you've described. Better to indicate this before hand so they know how the words are being said and don't have to re-tune. Another little bit I'd mention there -- you write:

Keahi arched one eyebrow. “Yours?” she inquired, her melodic voice rising and falling rhythmically in pitch.

Perhaps it's possible for these sort of vocal acrobatics to be rendered in a single syllable, but to my mind (and ear) this description of Keahi's voice would be better placed after a line in which she'd spoken several words, if not a full sentence. It's virtually impossible to say a single word with a single syllable "rhythmically."

Overall, this was a beautiful and gripping read. Thank you for sharing it.