“Now honey, please don’t stay up late.” Margaret patted her son on the shoulder and gave him a little smile. “You need to take care of yourself, okay? That’s not a small fever, so don’t push it.”
“Okay, mom. I just want to finish up this round.” Billy clicked on the screen, making game cards move. The resulting graphics assured him that his latest move was a good one.
“Okay. I just want you to feel better.”
“Don’t worry—I will,” Billy said.
She nodded, though clearly did not believe him: you could see it in her eyes. Her little, pursed lips. He’d given up going to the Boy Scouts when it was cutting into his game time—that was not what he said, but it was obvious—and why would he change his methods, why not further sacrifice now for the sake of the game?
Still, she exited the room, and then went downstairs. They always creaked when she did so—even after losing a solid twenty pounds on that last cleanse. The wood must have been weak, the boards simply worn by time.
Emptiness on the bottom floor ate at her a tad. Made her nervous. Divorce was not easy for anyone, let alone her. Wine helped though.
Alcohol—at least in the immediacy—worked.
It was after she’d had, give or take, two glasses of a strong red wine in both flavor and potency that she heard it. A crackle. A small licking sound of flame.
Though her reaction time was a tad slowed, she glanced up and around, her nose flaring to smell smoke. Nothing made itself obvious—not the lightest of stenches. The sound faded away as fast as it had begun. The clock ticked, softly, in its casing, and the air conditioning eventually rattled slightly.
She untightened her shoulders and pursed her lips. But relaxed somewhat. It was an older house, it had something in it that sounded like a fire when it shifted.
Then it happened again. A little licking crackle. Something in the air eating. Like a fireplace going through the final chunk of log.
Margaret did what all normal parents do: she worried about her child first. Her eyes widened, and even though she was wobbly, she ran for the stairs and made it creak. Her feet slapped painfully against the wood, and then she blasted open his door with a bang.
And she saw herself, standing there, looking over her son. Hand on the shoulder.
“I’ll just be up a little longer,” Billy said, gesturing at his game. “You go to bed—I don’t want your fever to get worse. I can make you breakfast.”
“Thanks son,” she said and turned her head around. Not the rest of her body. Just a perfect swivel of her face. Her eyes were not human, and her mouth stretched, broke, at a slashing angle, so that even if the duplication tried, it could not keep its lips closed. “That is so sweet of you. I am so happy to have you as a son.”
At the point where she was touching him, a warm glow came off her knuckles. Flowing into her palm.
“Thanks—” Billy slammed his head down on the keyboard, making a misplay. He lost the game with an exploding graphic.
The copy smiled sweetly or tried to anyway. She giggled a bit and then walked over to the stunned mother. Taking even steps.
“What-what did you do to him!? What did you do!?”
The woman just chuckled softly and then breezed past her—alongside her. A graceful small touch burst Margaret’s blouse into instant red flames. A soft scream escaped her throat as the fire moved faster and faster. Her protests to dying silenced when there was no oxygen left to make sound with.
Her hands clawed at the clothing and made the sheet of her bed fall off her. The heat stopped then, with the dream, except a dull lingering ache. With eyes that felt dry and a mouth that was even more so, she glanced around.
“Oh, are you awake, mom?” came Billy’s voice from the doorway. Behind him, the pleasant smell of bacon wafted up the stairs. “I thought you’d be out for a little longer—I’m still making food. It won’t be that much longer.”
Margaret, her mind still racing, latched onto one thought.
“Did you leave the stove on when you came up here?”
Billy’s smile extended past his face, and his crow’s feet cracked and bled. His eyes, slowly at first, but like the growing smell of burning from downstairs, grew orange, until it was an orb of bright color. Then darkening. Blackening.
The smoke from the destroyed bacon traveled up to curl around his head. Made his features even more distorted. “Mother, you are the perfect sun.”
“Son?” she choked out, her heart hammering.
“Sun: the ranging solar sun. That, as the maker of heat: you are perfect. As a mother, less so. As a caretaker—very much less so. How hard is it to make a cup of fucking hot chocolate? How hard is it not to get drunk?”
Billy, still this monstrous thing, stalked forward. The ground rumbled beneath him. Then creaked. He glanced down at the floorboards; shook his head in annoyance. “You bitch.”
The wood gave way, and he descended. A scream that was not something possible for the human throat came up from the blazing hell pit. Margaret pushed herself away as the edge of the bed tipped into the widening mouth of fire.
“Billy!” she mouthed or screamed. With the sound of the inferno, there was no way to be sure if she made any sound at all. The bedsheet lit on fire, and she shoved that away, only for her hands, like that same cloth, to shrivel and burn the same way.
Her face was on fire and then cool from the countertop. She gasped and glanced around. An empty bottle of wine sat by her, with the cork rolling next to it. The open container smelled vaguely off, like it had a touch of sulfur.
A little bubbling sound came from behind her, and she turned to see a thing of hot chocolate merrily popping on the stove. With a quick motion, she lowered the heat and stared into the brown liquid. She was about to, without even being sure as to why, burst into tears.
“Is it done yet?” came Billy’s voice from the top step. “It smells awesome.”
“Yeah—yeah…” Margaret shook away the cobwebs and touched her forehead. Her damp skin felt a bit warm. Maybe she was coming down with something. “I’ll bring it right up.”
“Cool, thanks,” Billy replied.
Margaret’s hand shook as she filled a mug with the sweet drink. Somehow, she managed to get the mug to him without spilling. He looked normal in his bathrobe and sci-fi themed pajamas.
“Here you go,” she said.
“Thanks,” Billy replied and nodded to her. A second later, his nose wrinkled. “Did you drink, mom?”
Red crept into her face. “Just a little while I was making this.”
“You’re such a lightweight mom—you could’ve burned down the house.”
Margaret involuntarily let out a little gasp as images flashed through her head. Of firefighters and ash and a corpse holding a warped, melted bottle. Of a foundation of a house collapsed.
“Yeah…I’ll be more careful next time. Thanks.”
“…take care of yourself, okay mom?” Billy said, giving her a slightly sympathetic look.
“Okay. Love you mom.”
Margaret nodded and glanced around slightly—like she was expecting something to jump out at her.
“Love—love you too, Billy.”