All Fire on the Outside

Something somewhere was on fire. I knew because of the sun: red and low and liquid, like a crayon melting across linoleum. I couldn’t smell it over the air conditioning blasting onto my face and thighs, but I had grown used to fire the way one grows used to summertime road construction. Midwesterners joke about the only seasons being Freezing! and Construction! Here, fire was a matter of fact that no longer had meaning. I didn’t hear any sirens; no one was honking. The air was still around the cars forming what felt like a funeral procession. I aimlessly scratched my knee. 

Despite the idle anxiety, there was a sense of community with the other drivers, so much so that I felt a small jolt of shame when I brushed a hairy patch on my knee. I traced over the soft hairs with my finger, my foot still holding down the brake pedal, and I imagined hiding my hairy knee behind the smooth one. Being bound by traffic is a curious thing—more orientation than purgatory—and I wondered what we might say to each other on the other side. I knew I was supposed to see crumpled fenders, spare tires, emergency vehicles. A body. The full range of disasters that can happen on the road. But I couldn’t see anything at all.  

I decided I wanted to make eye contact with a woman in a red crossover. She had merged into the lane beside me about a mile ago and still hadn’t looked at me. On her back window were two stickers: “Take a Hike” and “Big Bear Lake.” Based solely on what I assumed her hobbies were, there was no other context by which we might meet. We could only ever be traffic friends.  

I was on my way to a doctor’s appointment, and I wasn’t sure why. I had made the appointment myself, but I couldn’t point to any one thing that felt wrong. Low-level dread. Is that a diagnosis? Nothing hurt, nothing was swollen, nothing was late, early, or delayed. I just felt fragile, like at any moment I could spit out my teeth like they were popcorn kernels. I made the appointment anyway, knowing I would be assured everything was perfectly normal. I looked forward to someone telling me it was all in my head.  

The first emergency alert howled, and my phone rattled in the cupholder: violent, unrelenting. I heard the cars around me rattling, too—all our phones knocking against plastic—until the howls synchronized and we became one screaming snake made of brake lights. I watched Take a Hike check her phone before I even glanced down at my own. I waited for her face to tell me the news, or for her face to change at all. 

Traffic still hadn’t moved. I was going to be late.  

The emergency alerts still bounced around their respective car interiors, like weird little electric screams muffled underwater. Then silence. No humming metal, no knocking plastic, just the sound of my car vents coughing dusty air. I watched heads turn in the cars around me. I wanted to talk to the others about the sounds and the red sun and what they thought was causing all this traffic. I wanted to tell them I thought I was sick. The sun pulsed above me and the heat outside made its way into the car. Evacuate, the alert read. But where could I go?  

The truth is that I had been having some pain in my knee, and though I had attributed it to periods and bad footwear, there was also a calcified, twisted little pebble right on the corner of the kneecap. I started taking ibuprofen four or five times a day, but I’d self-reported on the new patient portal that I wasn’t taking anything at all. I wondered about my liver.  

Take a Hike finally looked up from her phone, and I stared at her until she caught my eye. She looked back at me, nothing on her face, and I felt ashamed of my voyeurism. I accepted that we would never meet. I knew because of the pain in my knee and because of the red sky. I knew because a second emergency alert was now sounding, and she was already looking back at her phone. I knew because I heard the jets before I saw them, one then two then three, screaming right over us, completely unencumbered by the rules of traffic. I knew because I was starting to feel something besides the mundanity of the fiery sun. I knew there would be no third alert.  

Cars started to move, but brake lights stayed on even as gaps opened. I couldn’t make out the scene past the bend ahead. I closed my eyes, rubbed the pebble in my knee and felt my face flush again at all those healthy hairs, just growing and growing and growing.

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash.

Katherine Markovich

Katherine Markovich writes fiction, audio plays, and performs the occasional voice over. She has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Portland Review, The Gordon Square Review, and The Lakeshore Review, among others. Her three-part scripted podcast, “Sarah Someone,” is available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. She lives in Chicago with her husband and dog, Meadow. Find out more on her website.