Brian laughs, then quickly sobers up when he sees my face.
“Fiery, huh? So — not a fever, then?”
“Yeah, I’m thinking not,” I say, and catch him up to speed.
Brian nods. “Any idea how to control it? Is it like before, like emotion-based, you know?”
I shrug. “I just figured this out about eight seconds before I told you. I don’t know thing one about it.”
I give it a shot, though, focusing on a nearby clump of grass and getting furious. In my pocket, I can feel my keyring pressing gently against my leg as the remnants of my magnetism kick in, but the grass remains totally untouched. After a half-minute or so, I relax and shrug again.
“Nothing. I don’t know. Doesn’t look like it’s the same trigger.”
“Maybe you just need something more flammable, man,” Brian tells me. “Only thing you’ve burned up so far was hot oil, which goes up a little bit easier than grass.”
“Yeah? Should you really be telling me what you know about burning grass? That seems like the sort of thing that’d get you kicked out of being an EMT.”
“Oh man, did Børger Boy just call ME a deadbeat?” asks Brian. I pull a face at him, and he grins. “See, man? THAT’S how you deliver a burn.”
I give him a mock shove in the direction of his car. “Don’t you have some blood to test before the hospital revokes your certifications?”
“I’m going, man, I’m going! Let me get my stuff from inside. Don’t get all hot under the collar.”
“Dude,” I say.
“Sorry, man. You got me all fired up.”
“Okay, seriously. Get out of my house.”
I spend the rest of the day trying to set things on fire, with little success. You’d think that this would be a binary sort of equation: either things catch fire, or they do not. But I’m trying to help myself out, so among my possibly-successful experiments are a ball of newspaper that I lit and then blew out, and a pan of oil heating on the stove. Both of these catch fire, but it’s entirely possible that the fires are entirely unrelated to pyrokinetic intervention.
Turns out “on the edge of fire” is not an easy place to keep a flammable object. Who knew?
By about dinnertime, I still haven’t made any progress in getting this under control, so I call into Børger to report that I’m sick. The assistant manager who answers, a guy who goes by the name of B-Rock, sounds unimpressed.
“Testing the goodwill limits already, eh?” he says, with mild rancor.
“Hey, come on!” I protest. “You can’t possibly be telling me that I should come in to work in food services with a cold.”
“No, you’re right. I can’t possibly be telling you that,” he says in a flat tone that makes his meaning perfectly clear.
I’m not going to be swayed, though. I actually like working at Børger, and I don’t want to see the place burn down because I haven’t got a hold of this power yet, and accidentally start a fire in the grease trap or the cleaning supplies or something else harder to put out. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ll probably be better by the weekend. This feels like a passing thing.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet. I’ll get someone in to cover your shift. Enjoy your concert or game or whatever you’re going to tomorrow.”
“It’s not like that!” I say, but he’s already hung up. I put my phone down on the counter and glare at it.
That buys me two days to figure this out, at least. I can work with that.
Two days later, I’m sitting on the couch again, frustrated and angry. 48 hours of experimentation has left me with almost exactly nothing to show. I can’t get anything to light from a cold start, not even things designed for the purpose like matches or candles. I can’t put fires out once they’re going. Basically, the fryer fire at Børger is the only real evidence I have that I can produce fire at all.
Honestly, I’d doubt that this was my power, if it weren’t for the fact that the house is currently at a balmy 41 degrees, and I’m still pleasantly warm. I’ve taken my temperature a few times, and I’m hanging out at right around 102° F. At the very least, this probably means I can get a doctor’s note in case work wants to see proof that I was sick.
As fiscally responsible as the ability to save money on my heating bills is, though, I’ve really got to get a handle on the rest of this before I go back to work. No one was hurt last time, not counting the blisters on my fingers, but I can’t count on luck to stay with me. I haven’t called out of work for tomorrow yet, but if I can’t solve this in the next couple of hours, I’m going to have to.
Right now, though, I’m on break. I’m sprawled out on the couch, glass of cola on the floor and a slightly-too-hot plate holding a slightly-too-cold microwave burrito balanced on my leg. While I’m waiting for the temperature between the plate and the burrito to equalize, I turn on the TV to have something to do.
It’s on the local station I left it on previously, and it’s in the middle of some security camera footage. It’s black-and-white, doing that two-frames-per-second thing, and I idly wonder why that’s still standard — digital recorders and storage space are dirt cheap these days, and it seems like it’d be in a store owner’s best interests to have a camera that actually recorded someone’s face and actions clearly, instead of making a weird, blurry flipbook.
In this case, though, the clarity of the device wouldn’t help, because the man in the picture is wearing a ski mask. His gun shows up perfectly well, though, as he motions for the man behind the convenience store counter to empty the register. At the door, a second ski-masked man watches outside for any incoming customers. He holds a length of pipe in his right hand, tapping it against his left palm like he’s an impatient British cop.
The cashier hands over the money, and the gunman clubs him over the back of the head. The cashier’s head bounces off of the counter and he disappears behind it between one frame and the next. The two robbers take off through the front door, and the screen cuts back to the local news anchors looking serious.
“That was the scene last night at the Con Plus mart,” says the female anchor. “Police believe that one of these men was also involved with the Apple Liquor robbery earlier this week. Both perpetrators are described as being white males in their mid-20s, 5’8″, roughly 130-150 pounds, with brown eyes. Due to the masks, no other distinguishing marks could be seen. If anyone has any information related to either of these robberies, please contact the police tip line immediately. Remember, you can do so anonymously.”
The male anchor adds, “And thankfully, the cashier, Emmond Dyerly, was treated for a mild concussion and released last night.”
“Yes, we’re very grateful that he’s all right,” agrees the female anchor. “This could have been much more tragic. We’re lucky that it didn’t escalate.”
I sneer at the TV, redirecting my pent-up frustration. “Oh, admit it. If that guy were still in the hospital, you’d be salivating right now over the ratings you could get. You’d love it if it escalated.”
After all, I’d stayed tuned in to watch the robbery happen, right? So if a robbery brings viewers, an assault is even better. One person hurt is good, many is great. A convenience store is fine, a bank heist is super! Ratings through escalation!
Just then, my burrito catches fire.
It takes a little while longer to figure out precisely what I’ve done, but now that I’ve got something that works, it’s a lot easier to replicate. After a few false attempts at focusing on bringing disaster or frustration to my targets — and really, I should have known it wasn’t frustration, or my whole house would have been on fire by now — I discover the key.
It’s escalation, intensity. If I ramp things up mentally, things around me get warmer. Without a target, it hits everything broadly, and whatever’s hottest and most flammable goes up in flames first. If the burrito hadn’t been there, I might well have set my couch on fire. My terrible eating habits have paid off!
Now that I know what I’m doing, though, it’s pretty easy to pick a target and just intensify it specifically. I can’t say for sure that I’m not heating anything else up, of course, but I do some tests with arrangements of matches, and I can reliably set just one of them on fire, leaving the others alone. So that’s a pretty solid indicator.
I also discover that it’s much easier for me to focus on raising the intensity if I physically raise my hand. I have no idea why this helps, but it absolutely does. Maybe it’s just that it gives me something to visually focus on. Whatever the reason, it significantly cuts the time it takes for things to catch fire.
You know how superheroes have catchphrases? They’re usually these cool things that they shout in battle, to intimidate the bad guys. I need to find a comic book writer, because in addition to raising my hand like I’m conducting half of an orchestra, I find myself repeating a word each time: “Uuuuupppppppp!”
I tell myself that I’m not planning on doing it in front of anyone, but I still feel pretty stupid. It works, though.
Out of curiosity, I also take a shot at gesturing downward to reduce the temperature, but no dice. It seems that I can set things on fire, but not put them out. Not with my mind, anyway.
And yes, I try saying “Dowwwwwn!” Shut up.