It whispers up my leg as I pass over the heater vent, the tickle of its fingers like feathers on my skin. Why did I have the heat on this late in the summer? The ting, ting, ting of the furnace echoes from the hallway closet and I smell the musty, singed odor you get when you turn it on for the first time in the Fall. I swear I shut the gas off because even the little pilot light radiated unwanted heat in the summer.
I walk back to the vent. Sure enough, I feel the gentle motion of the warm air move the fine hairs on my arm. I check the thermostat at the other end of the hall. It was off, just like I knew it would be. I flip it on and off again and hear no telltale click. I tap the side of it a couple times, like kicking the tires or lifting the hood on a car. The other vents in the room discharge a breeze, too, warmer than before.
I hear the scratching deep inside the duct. Maybe a mouse had found his way in and had made its home in the warm, round confine. More like rats by the sound of it. Great big rats. The scratching grew louder, and closer, building with the temperature of the air.
I try to close the damper on the duct but the rusty lever squeaked its resistance. The blast of hot air on my face dries my eyes, pushing me away with an invisible hand. Blinking quickly for new tears, I rummage around on my work bench until I found some pliers and WD-40. I smear the sweat off my forehead with my shirt sleeve and spray some of the lubricant on the lever. The liquid bubbles up like spit on a cast iron skillet. I’d never seen it do that before. I touch the lever to wiggle it and yank my hand away. White skin marks the spots where it made contact with the metal.
I run to the kitchen, turn on the cold water full blast and stick my burnt fingers under the running water. It’s hot, so hot! Maybe I turned on the wrong faucet, but no, it’s the cold handle. What’s going on? I shake my aching hand as if I could rid it of the pain.
The scratching echoes through the metal duct louder and closer. I can hear it in the other ducts, too, getting closer by the minute. I have to get some air in the house. I have to get the windows open. I lift on the sill, but it won’t budge. Old, dried paint plaster it shut permanently. I stare at the wire grating I had had installed on all the windows for security. Now it was the concertino wire of my prison.
I go to the front door to throw it open, ready to abandon the house and get help. The door knob throbs red with heat. Panic wriggles its way down my spine, squirming through my body like snakes. I strip down to my undies, sweat coating my body. I have to get out. Maybe if I found some gloves I could get the door open. The scent of burnt hair floats around my head. I run my hand over my scalp and it comes away with crispy wisps of dried threads. My mouth opens in a silent scream because, even though I feel no pain, I know I should feel the bubbling of my skin as I witness it melting like candle wax.
They find my smoking corpse today; tiny embers filling my skull, my arms and legs protruding from my body like burnt out matchsticks. I ignored their warnings when I bought the house. Full disclosure they had called it. They told me the fireman who had built it had died alone in the line of duty. He’s not alone anymore.
This is one of my earliest flash fiction pieces. Still one of my favorites
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