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Melissa Remains | 2017 | Good Riddance (A Series of Masks)


One only dies once, and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and will not present itself again.  

-Josť Rizal

She Would Not Want to Be Burned

Melissa would not want to be burned, of this I am certain. One of the formative experiences of her life, the way she told it, was the night she hotboxed her car with Glade air freshener. The propellant in the cans is nitrous oxide, the same gas dentists use to make you numb and apathetic that they are prying teeth out of your jaw. It induces a pleasant, half-dreaming state.

It is also keen to facilitate combustion.

I heard this story dozens of times, even if I won't hear it again from her. It seems essential to get it down. It was my favorite of her drug stories, the one most cartoonish.

Let us say that she had been huffing for a year, though I cannot be certain of an exact timeframe now. "Long enough" might be all that needs saying. She knew what she was doing, inasmuch as she ever did when it came to drugs. Given prior habits (cocaine) and those that evidently came after (heroin), huffing air freshener seemed downright wholesome, the sort of shenanigan a bored suburban kid is supposed to try.

Glade is legal to buy, even if one is a scruffy looking kid, but acquiring enough to put a proper dent in consciousness is suspicious. She deflected this by doubling down on her shadiness: her friends and she would drop a few dozen cans on the check-out counter and, before the clerk could so much as raise an eyebrow, she would burst out with a slurred, "Dude, we had, like, the biggest party at my parents' house and they just called to say they are coming back tonight!" That was enough to make the purchase with no more than an eye roll.

She never explained why she didn't just find a source of canned air - all the nitrous without the tell-tale stench of chemical flowers - but this either didn't occur to her or she couldn't contrive a ruse. She might, in fact, have enjoyed the association with the scent. She did smile fondly at the rumor that chocolate Glade might exist, somewhere down south.

She was careful to explain that, unlike the visions provoked by mushrooms or LSD, Glade hallucinations never lied because they originated from inside your subconscious. This seemed like pseudo-mysticism, but she was the expert. She had the persistent hallucination of a little girl who mostly warned her that the cops would be by to bust her shortly (they did, but she was a minor and was shooed away; her friend, over the age of majority, spent some time in jail after taking full credit for all the drugs swiftly ditched in the grass) or telling her that she needed to stop doing drugs. Once, the little girl ended their encounter by tapping Melissa on the stomach and saying, "I'll see you later!" Melissa had missed some periods and chalked it up to her rampant drug use. When she miscarried a month later, she felt certain the little girl was her future daughter (with a boy who never really cared for her the way she wanted him to, but found her an easy source of drugs and sex). I do not think that hallucination reappeared afterward, but maybe only because it makes for a better story that way.

The day she exploded, she had filled the car with many cans of Glade. I never got an exact number - I doubt she had the sense to know - except that it was far less than was reported by the police later. There were many already empty cans littering her floor that were not part of the night in question because they would have made it nearly impossible to breathe at all. Of course, sense and breathing took a backseat to hot boxing, the point of which is to concentrate the gas as much as possible.

Melissa was not alone. In the passenger's seat was one of her friends, I think the boy who had wronged her and whom she could not let go. In the back seat were two other boys she knew, though I am not sure which - there was only occasional overlap in the boys she did drugs with and the ones I met.

Subjective experience coats the objective facts of what happened, but I will combine them as best I can here. Screaming skulls shot at the windshield. Demons screamed at her to get out of the car immediately. In the passenger's seat, Lucifer asked the boy if he wanted to sell his soul.

Melissa didn't listen.

More exactly, Melissa decided that the demons likely had a good point about getting some fresh air, but that she would rather have a cigarette first. She looked at the window, looked at her cigarette, and flicked the lighter.

It did not spark.

She looked at the window again, looked at her cigarette conspicuously not aglow. She looked again at the window and considered opening it, but decided she could wait. She didn't want it to go out.

She tried the lighter again. The air ignited. Melissa thought this was another hallucination and didn't want to seem weak in front of her friends, who would surely mock her for taking it for reality. Before she could breathe in, something that would have more than likely killed her, she noticed that they were all screaming and followed suit. It is only this screaming that saved them from serious to lethal internal injuries.

Here I fall again to likely mythology. I know in fact that nitrous oxide is not itself flammable. However, at 565 degree Fahrenheit, it breaks down into condensed oxygen that will rapidly accelerate the burning of any fuel in the area. Does this justify that I remember seeing a picture of the car, the roof spread open like Jiffy-Pop? Or that I am sure I heard that Melissa's door fused shut from the heat and one of her friends, possessed of the adrenaline of fear and pain, wrenched it open and pulled her into the cool, night grass? It seems that this couldn't make sense, but it is how I've told it to others since then. I know the car was totaled and it never drove out of the field where she had driven it to keep from the eyes of authority figures. I know that her name, along with the named of two other minors, appeared in the local paper and I told her that she should sue because they had no right to publish the crimes of a minor. In retrospect, I do not recall hearing if anyone was charged with a crime, though I am sure that a police officer who wished to could have arrested them.

They were all burned by the fire, though she told me later that several McDonald's Happy Meal toys on the floor were untouched, even if ones inches away turned to slag. The fire was particular. Melissa had to get a short haircut to ameliorate what the flames had down and had a third degree burn on her knee. If I remember correctly, one of the boys had to have reconstructive surgery to again have ears. Melissa, the instigator of the fire, was the least injured. I do not know that she felt guilty about this or if she felt they got what was owed to them for sitting too close to her while she was doing something stupid and self-destructive.

They stumbled to their friend's house, just across the field. The friend's mother opened the door, screamed "What happen to you babies?", and covered them in wet blankets. As well intentioned as this was, this is a bad idea when dealing with four teenagers who have just been on fire, as it could put them immediately into shock.

I don't know who arrived first: the police, fire department, or ambulance. I do know that Melissa and her friends arrived to the emergency room but, once the nurses heard why they were there, took several people ahead of them, forcing them to wait for at least an hour while the burns deepened from second to third without treatment. They had gotten themselves into this mess and clearly needed to suffer for their stupidity.

Only a few weeks later, I saw her. She seemed fine, not even particularly fazed by what had happened to her. She had a new, used car, likely given to her by her parents. She told me that burning human flesh smelled of McDonald's French fries - she herself still smelled like this after many showers - and it gave her a constant craving for fast food. She drove me close to the Connecticut border for some suburban adventure, detouring at a farmhouse to buy drugs. She left me in the car for this, but was upfront about what she was doing. When she got back in the car, hiding from my view what she had bought, she told me that she was still going to huff Glade when the opportunity presented itself. The only lesson she learned from all this is that she never again wanted to be on fire and carried this phobia with her the rest of her life.

I say all this as though it is open to debate, whether she is cremated, but I do not have a seat at the table. Melissa's family as all legal rights as to the disposition of her body. As I write this, the decision is already made and Melissa's earthy shell is evaporated and pulverized.

I tell this story because it makes these ashes, this gray nothingness that was my best friend for over a decade, back into a woman. Not a perfect woman by any means - she wouldn't have been my sister if she were - but a funny and vital one. A fascinating one, a person who never bored me a day in her life when I got tired of hundreds of others. I write all this because I want so badly to bring her back just for a little while, just in my imagination. When I tell her story, she is close to me again.

I tell this story in order give the exact moment when I knew for certain that Melissa and I would not be reminiscing on the porch of our retirement home, cursing at kids for thinking they were the first to discover pop-punk and purple hair. That is the truth, because I remember squeezing into the corner of my parents' kitchen, the phone cord wrapped around me as Melissa told me this story for the first time. My father has heard the police and fire department coordinating over his police scanner earlier, though I didn't notice it until it was personal. I remember her calling with the basics from the hospital, but that can't be right. I can't have been that important to her, but maybe I was.

I knew then that someone who could laugh off exploding would stay on Death's radar. I didn't know exactly when it would happen, but that was the day I began preparing for the call telling me that Melissa had died.

Soon in Xenology: Processing. No Such Convention.

last watched: The Killing Joke
reading: Black Orchid
listening: Dresden Dolls

Melissa Remains | 2017 | Good Riddance (A Series of Masks)

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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