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"Time for breakfast and bandages!" Mom called.
For cripes sake! I groaned inwardly.
"Down in a few!" I yelled back, starting the coughing fit.
What do I gotta do to get rid of those dreams? Burn down the fucking garage?
I was shocked at myself for the momentary sense of joy that the idea gave me.
I slowly sat up and coughed out the morning phlegm. Feeling the sweat on my face, I decided a shower was first. I felt tired, and knew I had hardly slept. The fuzzy memory of waking up at least once during the night, full of fear and horror, was becoming a new normal.
This morning, though, I was buoyed by the thought of Jeff, Todd, and Tom coming over for dinner tonight. While that raised my morale, it did nothing to combat the sleepiness and physical weakness that was also part of the new normal, nor the fading fear and horror of the nightmare. I was energized a little at the thought of returning to school on Monday. It meant normality, and I'd always liked school.
I wasn't horny in the shower, also part of the new normal. I had always woken up with an erection, or had one arise in the shower, but now I seemed to lack that vital energy, or even have the desire to produce one. I wondered how long it had been since I had satisfied myself, and was surprised to find it had been been before the van fire. The last time I had gained any kind of sexual release had been with Jeff on Sunday morning, now three days past. I marveled at the length of time. I'd gone as long as a week, and even longer a very few times, but only with concerted effort and resolved purpose to experience the heightened release after a period of abstinence. That it had been three days and I still had no real desire to masturbate was a new thing.
Just not up to it, I said laughingly to myself as I dried off, panting from the exertion of the shower.
With sex on my mind, I began to wonder if there was any chance of doing anything with Jeff after dinner. With Tom and Todd there too, I didn't really expect anything to happen. I also hoped that Tom and Todd would go easy on Jeff. I knew that he was becoming tougher and less of a pushover, but I also knew that he was still very sensitive about being gay, and about the two of us being known about.
Those thoughts and others filled my head as I dried and dressed in sweats, groaning and panting with the effort. Teeth, hair, face, deodorant, all the usual things done, I slowly plodded down the stairs, forcing myself to stand upright and seem as normal as possible in front of the parents.
A quick thought and a nod at Toby as I passed him in the hall. Fresh ointment and bandages, then morning pills, then breakfast, over which I was reminded again that I had a doctor's appointment on Friday, and that my room could probably still do with a good cleaning.
Groaning at the injustice of having to do chores despite having recently avoided death, I agreed and kept the peace. I didn't mention the garage, but as it wasn't still on the list, I assumed they had noticed and wanted to see if, or how, I would mention it. I simply didn't have the mental energy to deal with the game.
Mom knew that I was making lasagna for tonight, so she had already put the frozen things in the fridge to thaw. She reminded me how long it took to get things done, as if I had never cooked lasagna before: how long to bake the garlic bread, how to tell when the lasagna was done, and so forth. Not to mention the predictable reminder that cooks were responsible for washing their own dishes and doing the cleanup afterward. I put up with it and didn't bother to point out that Dad and I helped with dishes every night, despite her being the cook.
It seemed that my mental energy was as low as my physical. I didn't care to play the game of saying what they were waiting for me to say, so that they could judge or decipher my mood or thoughts. I didn't mention the unfairness of having to wash dishes when I had guests, given that Dad and I always helped Mom with them. Nor did I point out that I needed sleep and rest and could get my own breakfast when I woke up later.
My being so low on mental will to argue, point things out, or defend myself, was probably due to spending so much energy hiding my physical weakness. For reasons that I didn't know, or even consider, I didn't want my parents to know how tired I was, how weak I was, or how drained I felt.
Once sans parents, I spent the morning checking over homework, trying to shore up what I hoped I was understanding. Daytime television being worthless, I listened to music. 1983 was a good time for new music. The synthesizer was seeing a resurgence with a new gamut of electronic capabilities, new driving beats were being created without actual drums, and some artists were replacing brass and woodwinds with electronic sounds. At times I missed playing the synthesizer, now relegated to my closet, but I feared what playing it would stir up. Now I also feared failing due to my damaged hand and fingers.
With all the stations available in Chicago, my favorite was The Loop, which played classic rock from the seventies, mixed with current mega-bands like Styx and Queen. It also played the classic rock super-bands like The Who, Journey, Foreigner, and such. And on weekend late nights, it went psychedelic and played Tull, Alan Parsons, Floyd, and similar music in long blocks, which cemented its place as my favorite.
My second-favorite station was Jeff's favorite. It played prog rock, new wave, and tech rock; stuff from Blondie, The Tubes, Men At Work, The Kinks, Yes, and similar music.
Next, I liked country. I kept that a secret for the most part - or so I had thought until my birthday. Toby had also liked playing country during our summers together. I had first learned to play keyboards to old country favorites, but had not listened to it frequently until Toby. Now I listened to both country stations; one played old classic stuff from the fifties and sixties, while the other station played seventies and current music. Toby had loved the older stuff, honky-tonk as well as bluegrass.
The more I listened to the new music station with Jeff, the more I found I liked the music, just as I had with country and Toby. I had always liked almost any music style, even some classical, but I found that most of my favorite music came from the classic rock genre. With Jeff, I was finding more and more to like in the new technical rock music of Thomas Dolby and others.
I felt like something familiar, so I turned on my favorite station. I sang aloud with most of the songs and tried to find my new voice, or at least discover what I could sound like now. My speaking voice was obviously lower and rougher than before, and was surprisingly low for my size. It almost sounded as if part of my chest were hollow instead of more likely filled with burning van residues.
While flipping stations, one of the new songs from Kilroy Was Here came on. I'd heard, "Don't Let It End" for the first time just before the van fire, as I dressed one morning for school. I remembered the day clearly. Jeff and I had again had an encounter over the weekend, and Jeff had again gone home in the middle of the night, leaving me alone to stay awake with worry. I was about to ride my bike to school, to avoid facing him on the bus, and was planning on not going to the cafeteria before classes. I had been so sure that Styx had written the song for me. It had hurt. It still hurt to hear it. I wondered just what listening to the entire album was going to be like. I planned on listening to it alone when it came out in two weeks. At least the first few times.
Singing along with it proved that the days of singing those highs were gone. The wonderful keyboarding in the song also stirred my desires to play the old synthesizer in the closet again. Or the other one. I missed playing either of them more than I wanted to admit. As I listened to the song, my mind was seeing the keys needed, the timing, the movement of hands and fingers over those keys, and the sensation of them in motion below my fingertips. And again, I feared what playing keyboards ever again would stir up, if I was even capable. The twangs of agony from the injured fingers made it seem unlikely.
My mood in anticipation of having Tom, Jeff, and Todd over for a few hours was invulnerable even to the effects of reminiscing and ruminating. For a moment, I hoped Tom wouldn't make it, or Todd, and that Jeff and I would be alone. I knew that wasn't going to happen, but it let me imagine sex happening.
My body responded, surprisingly. Weakly, and briefly, but it responded. When I didn't react and take matters into hand, it retreated.
Once homework seemed satisfactory, I polished the adventure I intended putting Tom and Jeff through soon. I turned on the stereo again and tuned in the techno-rock station as I rolled joints for tonight. Thinking of the night ahead was keeping me in a decent mood. As I finished rolling the second joint, "I Want Candy" by Bow Wow Wow came on. I cranked it up and danced around the room, changing the title lines to, "I want Jeffey."
With my new, lower, louder voice, I was able to bark out the lyrics. I sang lower than the girl in the band, even lower than the Strangeloves in the original, but I felt I was in tune in that lower range, and I thought I sounded alright, growling it out the way I was. I enjoyed doing it, no matter how it sounded. The release and pleasure was still there, even if I couldn't hit the highs any longer. Singing it so loudly caused an irritating desire to cough, but I was able to deny it until between vocals. I was breathing hard, gyrating stupidly, just enjoying the music, the mood, and my buzz when I tossed out my last, "I want Jeffey," followed by the repeats of, "Hey!"
The applause surprised me, until I remembered that I hadn't locked the door after Dad had left. A quick glance at my alarm clock by the bed verified my fear.
I was still facing the window, panting, refusing to turn around. I didn't want Tom seeing my ridiculously red face.
All I could think of to say was, "At least make me feel better and say you only came up for the last line or so, huh?"
"Sorry, dude. Saw a whole chorus and the last section. Heard even more."
I could hear his grin in his voice.
"Fu-u-uck," I moaned into the start of "Who Can It Be Now."
"Go ahead. I know ya know this one."
I turned around, now too curious not to face him. He looked serious.
"What?" he asked to my expression.
"Hell yeah. I heard ya just now. Your new voice is pretty good, man."
"Pfft," I replied, turning down the music then heading to sit at the desk.
The dancing about and singing had taken most of my energy, leaving me to drop into the chair with a groan.
"I bet you'd sound pretty good if you worked on it."
"Maybe. Now I can kinda do Tommy in "Half-Penny", and some rough singers, but no more highs."
"Well, things change, huh?" he said, bringing us both to a suddenly too familiar awkward silence.
I filled it with, "If you ever tell Jeff about that I'll kill you," I promised. "Or anybody! Plus, I'll cut you off!" I said, holding up the joints I had rolled.
"No! Not that! Anything but that!" he cried in absolute horror. "You can have my first-born! My left nut! My very life! But not that!"
First we covered the homework. I saw it was a light day and rejoiced. Putting the algebra aside, once I was satisfied with it, I toyed with the joints as Tom finished.
"That's it for now," he said, putting his books away.
"Wanna burn this puppy then go get lasagna started," I said, lighting the joint.
"Why don't we do both?" he asked.
I considered it.
"As long as we don't leave the roach laying around the kitchen, why not?"
By the time my parents made it home, Tom and I had the joint smoked, the lasagna and garlic bread in the oven, and the salad prepared.
"Smells edible," Mom said, as she checked on the contents of the oven.
"Guaranteed not to cause vomiting. But cramping, bloating, constipation... not covered," Tom said.
"That's reassuring," Mom intoned, heavy with irony.
"We're here!" came Todd's voice, audible even from two rooms away.
"Kitchen," I yelled loudly in my new, lower voice, hoping it didn't crack. Instead it nearly resonated through the house. Mom threw me a surprised look for a moment.
"Hey," Jeff said as he entered, his little brother behind him.
He was wearing the light blue jeans that were just a bit baggy, yet a bit clingy. They tended to highlight the most wonderful curves and shapes, even as he moved. He knew that I liked him in blue. He was taking advantage of his intense blue eyes by wearing a dark blue, short-sleeved polo style shirt that barely didn't cling to his chest and sides. He was stunning, even though he seemed so large and so powerful.
For a moment I wondered what had happened to the cute little guy I had almost fallen on top of on the bus, and had so instantly fallen for.
My eye winked and my hand flinched. I swallowed with difficulty.
"Smells good, when do we eat?" Todd asked in a voice, that until recently, I had been able to mimic almost perfectly.
"Ready any minute. Go have a seat at the table," Mom said, shooing everyone out of the area.
I was occupied in removing then cutting the lasagna and was unable to leave. Mom asked Dad, Todd, and Tom to carry nearly everything else out with her, before asking Jeff to help me with the lasagna and not to forget the Parmesan. We were left alone.
"How fucking convenient," Jeff said humorously.
"Real subtle," I agreed.
"So, we supposed to make out or what?" he asked, grinning in embarrassment.
I snickered and blushed.
"Where's this infamous cheese?" he asked.
"The glass thing on the table there," I said, nodding in the general direction. "So, seriously, can we make out?" I asked as he leaned against the counter less than a foot to my right.
I looked into his face and eyes, wanting to reach out and grope the rounded bulges that seemed to protrude from those jeans, front and back.
It must have shown; he grinned, blushed a bit, and looked down at his shoes.
"Later," he said seriously.
"Looking forward to it," I said, meeting eyes again.
I'd managed to continue my work on the pasta cake and was ready to move it.
"So, if you'll hold the door, lets go disappoint them, shall we?"
I grinned. He grinned.
Dinner went well. Mom and Dad occasionally asked a question about a game or a movie but otherwise left us to our own. Mom, Dad, and Tom helped with the cleanup while Jeff and Todd took their coats upstairs to my room.
Tom and I were asked what the plan was for the night. We revealed nothing, but satisfied their curiosity - we hoped. With the kitchen in good order, we said goodnight to my parents, grabbed four bottles of Coke, and headed upstairs.
Jeff was at the desk, holding a joint. I saw another laying on the desk, ready. He lit and passed it around as Todd and Tom played Dig-Dug and Jeff and I sat behind them, next to each other on the foot of the bed.
As soon as it was done, Jeff said, "If you guys are busy, I wanna go talk alone with Alex."
"Talk," Todd scoffed with a snort.
"Well, somethin' oral'll be goin' on," Tom said, nudging Todd with his elbow without missing a beat in the game.
Todd cracked up and leaned over in laughter, losing a life immediately.
"Oh, you guys are assholes," Jeff said firmly.
Jeff and I were half way to the side room when Tom said, "We'll pretend the bed-springs are just you guys talking."
Todd continued to laugh out loud, now laying completely on his side, the game completely abandoned.
"He's stoned," Jeff said dismissively.
"No shit," I said, knowing he meant his brother.
"So am I, though," he said as we sat on one of the little beds.
"You know, if you wanna go make out..."
I bounced my eyebrows and put my hand on his thigh.
He tisked in his wonderful way, grinning and slightly laughing as well.
"Look. Uh, we're not, uh, gonna, do anything, tonight. Okay?"
I felt my stomach fall, even though I hadn't thought that we would. I was simply looking forward to seeing him. I had assumed we wouldn't sneak off to be together, except maybe for a brief few minutes, but his confirmation of that fact still seemed a shock to unknown hopes.
"Yeah, I know. I mean, I kinda hoped for, like, not doing much. Ya know?"
I demonstrated. He complied. We grew heated and broke apart quickly.
"Uh, not much of that or I'll drag you into that secret bedroom right in front of 'em," Jeff said softly.
I laughed softly, knowing I had no problem with that scenario.
"Saturday," he said around another kiss.
We were both hard, and both aware of it.
"Fuck, you're so huge!" I whispered, wrapping my fingers around what I could feel through his jeans.
"Fuck, stop!" he said firmly but quietly.
I complied reluctantly.
"Saturday," he said again.
Firmly, with authority, again.
"Amazing how much your voice changed so quick."
"I noticed," I said evenly, not wanting to mention my attempts at singing.
"Still, bet you can do some Styx," he said as if reading my mind.
"I can, some different stuff now. The lower, louder songs. Just not the stuff like before. And I was never any good anyway."
He spoke a few words of Latin. He couldn't know that ever since Toby it had become a sensual language to me. I knew very little of it, only what Toby had used between us in very special situations. I couldn't make any real sense out of what he had just said, and my expression told him so.
"All things change, and we change with them."
"Yeah, everything's gotta change," I said sadly. "But don't wanna go there! So what's the talk at school?"
We talked about school and the news going around it. Thankfully, my telling Charlie Derek that I was gay during the fight was old news. However, my being gay was still around, though no one was threatening any violence.
That I had been in a fire was common knowledge, as was the fact that I would be back in school next week. The fact that I had died and was resuscitated was a secret, and I was glad of that fact. Not only did I not care to have everyone know it, it would have led to just how I had been revived. I didn't think I wanted everyone to know, and I was sure that Tom didn't.
So far, and possibly for good, the fact that Jeff had stood up for me and all but said that he was gay was still known only to the half-dozen who had been there.
"And I think I want it to stay that way. At least for now. I hope you don't mind," he said sheepishly.
His expression was too cute, and reminded me of him from before he had begun to grow so big.
"Yeah, I know. Just between the Circle guys for now," I said once again.
He looked relieved. I felt a bit constrained, but maintained my smile.
Whatever I gotta do to have Jeff, I promised myself. Again.
"Even with the guys, it's, I'd rather we didn't, like, say or do anything. Ya know, when they're around. Okay?"
Now he was pushing it, at least as far as I was concerned. There was no reason he should be concerned about the Circle guys knowing. He had to understand and expect jokes and teasing galore. Didn't he?
"Dude, you really think we can pretend it ain't goin' on with 'em? They already know. Duh."
He looked worried and a little scared, which was odd for him now. Before, it would have been normal.
"Jeff, come on. It's just the guys. The same guys who know already. So what if they know you stay over on Saturday nights."
"How can you just pretend like it don't matter?" he asked a bit angrily.
"Because it don't!" I said firmly, staring at him. "And it shouldn't for you."
He sighed in exasperation.
I put my arm around him and hugged him, side to side. We looked into each others eyes and grinned. We kissed softly.
"We gotta get back. Tom and Mutt are gonna give us hell as it is," he said gently, his mood now far less harsh.
"It'll be cool," I said softly. "Come on."
We walked back into my room and rejoined Tom and Todd.
"Guys, no jokes, okay? About, you know, me and Jeff, and stuff... and things. Okay? It's really fucking tough to deal with it without that, okay?"
We got one "Okay" and a "Sure."
We played music and Atari, smoked another joint, messed around with some Dungeons and Dragons things, perused the new editions of the manuals, and raided the fridge later. Needless to say, the lasagna did not survive the evening, though there was bountiful salad the next day.
At one point I found Jeff and myself sitting on the bed and noticed that we were on the corners, putting as much room between us as we could. That simple fact gave birth to an awkward feeling that only grew stronger as I tried to ignore it.
I don't want to feel like this with Jeff! Especially not around Tom and Todd! Why?
I tried to ignore it. I gave up after a while, again realizing that ignoring something doesn't usually cause it to cease.
I tried to damp it, lessen it.
I carried on talking about movies and music, taking turns at Atari, and other distractions, but from time to time, some innocent comment or a simple meeting of eyes with Jeff would reignite that sense of being exposed or out of place.
And then there were the changes in Jeff. Or myself. Or how I saw Jeff.
He was assertive. He took control of arguments. He ended disagreements. He'd always been able to control his brother a bit, but that had also been because Todd was willing to concede. He'd told me there wasn't going to be any sex tonight. Though I'd known it already, and wasn't expecting it, he'd made it clear. And that still bothered me somewhat.
As the night went on, I enjoyed myself, and they seemed to as well, but I was also on edge. I worried that I might say or do something that would point out how I felt about Jeff. I was mortified I might reveal the fact we'd had sex and were going to again. I wanted to do nothing to embarrass him or make him feel uncomfortable.
My rational mind said our relationship was no surprise to either Todd or Tom, but my emotions insisted that it remain an unspoken topic. It wasn't for me: it was for Jeff.
I wondered what would help Jeff get over the fact that the guys knew about us. I thought I understood his concern but didn't see why it had to be such a huge problem for him. I thought that maybe, if the guys were all around, I could get Jeff to see that it didn't matter that they knew. If I could move the conversation over to the two of us, just long enough for everyone to say something, I thought I could show Jeff that it was no big deal to any of them. I began forming a plan for the Circle meeting on Friday at Eric's house.
I knew I could count on Eric to open his mouth. I was already good at managing to arrange what came out of it without his knowing I had done so. I saw how I could get him to bring up Jeff and me, and the fact that it wasn't a big deal. I found the right words to lead Eric that way and was feeling sure and cocky about my brilliant plan.
Near nine-thirty, Todd said, "Bingo is ended, so mom should be here soon, Jeff. You better go kiss your boyfriend goodnight."
He snickered. Jeff was sitting behind him, so it was simple for him to lean forward a bit and sharply slap the back of his head.
"Dick!" Todd complained as his lunar lander drifted off course and crashed.
"I thought your mom was playing bridge?" I asked.
"Huh? Oh, when she mentioned it last week? Yeah, she said the girls got together for bridge or something. Wednesday's always been Mom's night to do something. Was the church for a long time, and since this is Ash Wednesday, she's doin' something different for it for a change."
"For years this was a big night. We'd be in church, normally," Todd offered as he put on his coat.
"Wow," I said, astonished at the huge change their mother was willing to go through.
"Well, be honest. We wasn't happy at that church anyway." Todd said firmly.
"Yeah, well, churches aren't what they were supposed to be anymore," I began.
"Don't go down that road. We're all on it," Jeff demanded. "We all agree on that already."
Giving each other a pout of false fear of authority, Todd, Tom, and I fell in behind Jeff and walked downstairs.
We had been sitting in the kitchen talking about nothing for only a few minutes when the car horn signaled their mother's arrival.
"Now if we can get her to go to the bingo down the block every week, we'd be set," Todd said once again
"I said we'd work on it, squirt. Don't harp on it at me," Jeff ordered.
Once again the three of us mimed absolute fear of domination.
"Who's a bossy bitch?" Todd added with a laugh.
"Yeah, say that in front of Mom," Jeff shot back, shutting him down.
Once again, a display of overly-dramatic pantomime subjugation followed by laughter.
"See what I live with?" Jeff complained as he turned to me.
Moving quickly, he kissed me, then said, "See ya Friday," with a grin and was out the front door before I recovered.
Tom stood at the door alone, grinning.
"Oh, go ahead," I said with dread.
"Can't think of anything," he said with surprise. "I'll have something for ya tomorrow."
"Oh, joy, can hardly wait," I said, having to manufacture the dread in my voice that made the statement funny.
I closed the door before he could come up with something.
After saying goodnight to my parents and Toby, being handed all the proper pills, and being newly bandaged, I dropped into the chair at my desk, exhausted. I'd done a lot in one day, physically and emotionally.
I pulled the journal from my desk drawer and told it of the evening with Tom, Jeff, and Todd. I focused on my strange feeling of paranoia and worry, which I was sure was so much of Jeff's problem. I asked the journal if I could change that, whether my plan for the Circle meeting on Friday at Eric's would likely help, and if there was any real chance that Jeff could be open about our relationship any time soon. It didn't answer my written queries: it never did.
I eventually wandered into my bed and managed to remove my glasses before I began drifting off. I was too tired to stay up late in the hope of not having the nightmare. I was almost too tired to care if I had the nightmare or not.
I was thinking about how little I cared if it came again or not when my thoughts grew fragmented and distant.
Before long, though, the smell of gasoline grew nauseatingly strong.
I quailed in fear.
"Yeah. Old Chevy, not started for a few days, in cold weather, used to driving every day. She's gonna be stubborn," dad was saying again.
I felt myself there, in the van, as if it were happening that first time. I was along for the ride, unable to change anything, fated to relive the entire event again and again.
"See if you can pop that hatch cover, will ya, son?"
I leaned across the sizable hump between the front seats, knowing that I would be unable to open the hood cover. Still, I unlatched the one on the passenger side easily. The driver side was far more difficult; it opened, but I couldn't get the clasp to come off. I pulled and yanked, afraid I might tear it off. The van was shaking from my efforts.
"Don't break it off. I tried. It's stuck good. Try to start it one more time, then we get that clasp fixed so we can get to the engine decently. Go ahead and try starting it again."
"At least you know I ain't even started it," I answered with a sly grin.
I didn't feel like grinning. I wanted to scream.
He peeked around the hood at me with a grin.
I thought, Don't stand there smiling at me! RUN!
Despite my best efforts to prevent myself from doing so, I moved the Styx medallion out of the way and then turned the key. The engine turned over and over, barely beginning to catch. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. Knowing, I pushed and released it. The engine turned faster, then caught with a pop. I closed my eyes as tightly as I could, knowing what was about to happen and completely unable to stop it, still seeing it clearly. Another, louder pop, then a loud, whooshing boom as there was a bright, orange light, and I was knocked against the van door, my sore temple striking the pillar.
Things went fuzzy, and wobbly, and blurred. Dad yelling my name. The flames on the dashboard now. My eyes closed instinctively against the heat and smoke, but I still saw it all clearly. I could feel the heat of the fire on my right side. I smelled the odor of burning carpet, oil, rubber, and plastic.
I reached for the key and killed the engine. The flames raged, grew larger, burning the black shag carpeted dashboard; closer, hotter. Flaming drops of plastic burning through my jeans and into my legs. Thicker, blacker smoke curled up the windshield and rolled over my head.
I opened the driver's door, but it hit the wall of the garage. My lungs rejected the air they drew in, making me cough uncontrollably. I couldn't keep my eyes open against the smoke and heat, let alone breathe it.
Dad's voice calling my name again. I tried to call back, but my lungs refused the smoke and I began a horrible coughing fit. I rolled the window down to get fresh air from outside the van and perhaps be able to yell for him, but the crank came off. The smoke increased and billowed out of the partially open window, still choking me. I slid as far from the blazing engine and dash as I could, pressing myself against the partially open door, shoving my face out the partially open window in an effort to find air.
I felt the heat of the fire singing my skin through my clothing. Images of my charred and smoking body being pulled from the van by firemen, my grieving parents held back by police, ran in my head. I clawed at the window, knowing that even if I broke the glass and tried climbing out that I would only hit the wall. I could flail my arm out the partially open window, and I could feel the narrow distance between the van and the garage wall; I knew that was no use.
Real panic set in, forcing reason and rational thought to flee. I pushed the door with my shoulder, but it was as far open as it could get. I knew there was no way out to my right, not with the fire above the engine growing hotter and closer. Flames were also spreading across the thickly upholstered dashboard, the carpet near the engine bay between the front seats, the material of the overhead, and the hanging curtains just behind both seats.
The coughing became constant and painful. Each inhalation burned terribly; each cough hurt even more than the last. The chemicals, burning ashes, and the heated air triggered uncontrollable and gut-wrenching coughs.
I tried to make my lungs work, to draw in and take what oxygen they could from the smoke, but they refused. My heart's efforts doubled. I pushed my face into the window, no longer caring if the glass broke and I was horribly cut; I only wanted the air. I clawed feebly at the stub where the crank had broken off, knowing that I could never turn the spindle, but trying anyway.
The pain in my temple flared with each cough. I felt the familiar dizziness come, and knew I was about to lose consciousness.
And somehow, my own thoughts were to blame it on God, worry about not being with Toby in the afterlife, and how unfair it was that now Jeff and I were going to be a couple I was going to die instead.
The heat of the fire, the pain of my skin burning on my right side and back, the pain as drops of flaming carpeted dashboard burned through the legs of my jeans, the pain of my lungs filled with toxins and chemicals and hot ashes, the horrible suffocation.
The light of the fire was dimming, the smells and heat seemed more distant, the only sounds now where my thoughts and my stuttering heartbeat. Soon, even those sounds grew faint, indistinct, irregular, then stopped.
I woke up almost screaming, coughing. I sat up and tried to bring my rapid breathing back to normal. I was wired and sweaty, shaking and still afraid.
It was all so nearly normal now.
I washed away the sweat and then went back to bed, wanting sleep, but afraid that I might dream it again. I thought of the little yellow pills. I rejected the thought.
Just don't dream it again. Just sleep. Too tired to go downstairs and get a pill, so just don't dream it again. Too tired to dream it again, anyway, right?
Sleep, and don't... dream...
Sleep finally returned. The smell of gasoline did too.
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