Rayne decided she didn’t like Barbara. It was the wrong century to be named Barbara. And, truth was, she didn’t particularly care for the name in the last.
However, she had chosen Barbara, setting her beach towel down in the unoccupied square of sand next to her. Rayne figured her beach-mate had the curves and bikini to draw some eyes, and perhaps those a little out of Barbara’s league would settle on her slightly older, less shapely neighbor.
So far, no luck.
What irked her most wasn’t Barbara’s relative youth or superior figure, but her flippant attitude. Rayne thoughtfully had offered her some suntan lotion. However, Barbara rebuffed her gesture with a dismissive story about how her towel prevented her from burning.
Did she take her for a fool?
Let her fry then. Rayne secretly wished for something in the second degree range.
However, after two hours of midday Florida sun, her sunscreenless friend didn’t appear to color let alone burn. Rousing from a nap, Barbara stood. As she picked a wedgie and adjusted her top, Rayne searched for tan lines. Astonishingly, she found none.
“I’m going for a dip,” Barbara announced. “Would’ya watch my stuff?”
“Sure,” Rayne lied.
Barbara stood on the edge of her towel as if it a cliff. Finally, she took a giant step off, jogging toward the water.
Rayne studied the supposedly enchanted towel. Even accounting for her Barbara-resentment, she determined it a pitiful, tired-looking thing. The edges were frayed like mice had gnawed it, and a corner had unraveled. Its color was faded, the hues and tones weary. The pattern itself was odd—frowning rainbows stitched at chaotic angles into an exhausted blue background.
She couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for it.
Rayne didn’t know from where the impulse came, but over the years she had learned to listen to her inner voice. Quickly, she gathered her things. Her red thermos was missing its top. She kicked at the sand, but couldn’t locate it. The container would be useless without it, but it couldn’t be helped, she needed to go. Snatching up Barbara’s ratty rainbow towel, she crammed it into her carry-all and left.
She couldn’t sleep. Muffled voices and applause seeped through the thin walls of her apartment. Through the steady cadence and intervals of laughter, it was the familiar soundtrack of late-night television. The words were too distorted to make out, but still Rayne frustrated herself trying. It would go on until morning, the half-deaf old lady in the apartment next to her having fallen asleep despite the racket. There was no use calling her phone, or pounding on her door. She was dead to the world until morning; not even a fire alarm could wake her.
However, tonight, the intruding television noise wasn’t the cause of her restlessness.
Climbing out of bed, Rayne shuffled to her dresser. She turned on the lamp and removed its shade. It would take a little while for it to heat up. Her carry-all was by the front door, not that her apartment was big enough that it took much time to retrieve it. Grabbing the hastily balled up rainbow towel, she shook the sand away before carrying it back to her bedroom.
She placed a finger on the exposed lightbulb withdrawing it quickly. It was already dangerously hot.
Setting the towel on the floor, she stood on it. She drew in a deep breath and grabbed the bulb.
Rayne counted to ten before letting go. Her fingers were unblemished and unburned.
Kicking the rainbow towel into the bathroom, she twisted the shower knob to her usual hot setting. However, she reconsidered and cranked it all the way. By the time she took her pajamas off, steam filled the room. Throwing the towel onto the sizzling shower floor, she jumped on top of it.
The water ran over her, dousing her hair, pouring over her torso, and cascading down her legs, but there wasn’t any pain. With more curiosity than fear, she examined her skin. It wasn’t red, bubbly, or otherwise scalded.
She exited the shower, turned off the water, and wrung out the sopping towel. Not bothering to redress, she stumbled into the living room leaving a snail’s trail of water behind. Digging through the coffee table drawer, she found the lighter. After a few dry flicks, she managed to hold a flame. She used it to light her spiral patterned curtains. The old, dry fabric caught quickly. The fire raced upwards to the ceiling where it rolled like a tidal wave across room.
Spreading more quickly than she expected, Rayne hurriedly placed her towel in the middle of the room. As the flames jumped to the walls and furniture, she leapt on it. It didn’t take long for the fire to surround her. For a moment it seemed to hesitate, but then it closed in.
Rayne bathed in the conflagration, soothed by the inferno’s luxuriant caress. For the first time in her life, she felt free—a weightless, unburdened soul. The chaotic passion of the blaze was everything she dreamed it to be. All those elusive night fantasies of flame realized, she basked in its grandeur until blacking out from the lack of oxygen.
Deafened by a thunderous rushing in her ears, Rayne woke under a bare night sky. But it was everything below that mesmerized her. Glowing prismatic bands swirled in the depths of the rectangular abyss on which she lay, spectral arcs drowning in the emptiness of a god-like tapestry. With a vertigo dizziness , she wanted to melt into the infinite nothingness, but was thwarted by a stubborn buoyancy.
Like lava cooling, the terrifying beauty of the void subsided, as did the loud vacuum’s rushing in her head. The sights and sounds of the world in all its staleness returned, rumpled and worn like the towel beneath her.
She stood alone inside a skeletal ribcage of charred post and beam. The apartment was reduced to a smoldering husk, weightless ash swirling around her like black snow. In the distance, she could hear blaring sirens that incrementally grew louder. Soon, they would drown out the screams. Fires raged several doors down, her combustible gift spreading downwind. The tinny smoke alarm bleeps from the close-cropped apartments seemed feebly apologetic in response to the raging smoke and flame.
Rayne wrapped the towel around her to cover her nakedness. However, the residents on the other side of the street who had shuffled out to gawk at the pre-dawn mayhem didn’t notice. On the opposite sidewalk, coughing soot-smeared survivors shook and cried, the confused barking and mewling of their pets adding to the bedlam. In the dejected triage line, Rayne didn’t see the old woman from next door.
Strobes of electric red, white, and blue lit the street. The police and firemen made the scene at the same time. Rayne adjusted the tuck of the towel, the stitching of the rainbows rough against her cool skin. Standing on ground zero, she needed to leave before an overly attentive cop would put two and two together.
Joining the crowd, she hid in the milling of the herd. Despite her odd dress and ash snarled hair, no one noticed her walking against the current. She left the chaos behind exiting into a back alley.
The sky ahead was clean, the first light just coming over the horizon, a red blush in the eastern sky. She had nowhere to go; no home, close family, or close friends nearby. She had no money or credit cards for a motel room. Yet, the only thing that mattered was that sunrise, a strange optimism pushing her forward.
It wouldn’t be long before the sun would show itself. Rayne sensed the towel’s rainbows stirring as if anticipating a bigger and better fire. But this was ridiculous, she couldn’t just stride off the horizon into the dawning sun.
Still, she pushed on, leaving the bustle of the residential district behind. The grass was cool on her feet. Across the empty fields, the sunrise bloomed, the first rays curling around the shadows of the twin hyperbolic cooling towers of the power plant.
Like horns of some great atomic bull, they cut the horizon. And she found herself running toward that brazen beast and the radioactive fire shimmering in its belly. Somehow, she would open the yawning void wider this time and melt down into its core.
Author’s note: I wrote this story last fall for an “evil rainbow” short story contest run by bizarro author Madeleine Swann, writer of the short novel Rainbow’s Suck (click for Amazon Link). My story didn’t win (and if read into the order she posted the stories, I may have finished second to last), however, I enjoyed writing it and after much procrastinating, I finally added some words and did some necessary editing.
Thank you, Madeleine! Bask in what you and your evil rainbows have wrought! Everyone would do their souls well to check out Madeleine Swann on twitter, youtube, and any other corners of the internet she haunts!