The Slow Burn

28 February 2018

Lengthened, ill-defined shadows overlapped like hazy Venn diagrams and the world took on a dim, dusk-blue iridescence that tugged at his tangled viscera.

My goal with The Slow Burn was to explore the idea that a seemingly innocuous, everyday event, can have far reaching implications on the psyche of a maturing boy (or girl). The protagonist’s perceptions are changed and with them, his world.



The Slow Burn

Repeated mental probing would eventually lead Seb to some kind of personal truth. One he’d buried under years of cumulative neuroses so thoroughly, that each session with Mary, his exceptionally well-qualified psychotherapist, was a battle through labyrinthine pathways—beasts littered within, snarls and hot breath around each corner. Together they would chip away, Mary arming Seb like Jason to his Theseus, to face something horned, dark and familiar. Each weekly therapy session like a war to reclaim and understand the past, one memory at a time, peeling back beast-flesh to reveal those forgotten things around which muscle, skin and teeth had formed. On and on this would go, week in week out, Seb squirming and sweating, interchangeably acquiescent and resistant when confronted with each gnarled mnemonic; driven by Mary’s desire to lead him to the genesis of his persistent dysthymia. He’d put in the hard work, he’d scarred shirts with brackish residue, he’d cried, mostly out of a sense of relief or realisation above any real trauma, hell, he’d shown up, even on days when he’d rather have been in bed, front door bolted, mobile off, duvet right up there over ears and eyes, hopelessly inviting sleep to take hold and never let him go, as though light itself were the agent of his pain.

There were no guarantees that isolating this switch, petrified within folds of grey matter, would unburden him, but he’d summoned his last measures of hope, years’ worth rationed and accrued for a final plunge. Like a human cannonball hooking one leg after another into a wide, light-swallowing barrel-mouth, he could imagine no future beyond the muffled hiss of the fuse or the rush of blue towards him. For there to be some future, he would unearth the past…

… It was two twenty-six PM and a fourteen year-old Seb was fighting that post-lunch, carbohydrate funk, mustering his last reserves to maintain the appearance of studiousness in Mr. Dodd’s physics class. He looked around, well placed as he was in the far right corner to take it all in, but saw nothing of interest. His pencil was now blunt. He’d scrawled and sketched his way through the last half an hour, his attention flitting between Mr. Dodd’s attempts to summon enthusiasm in a period that gets passed between teachers like a hot turd come scheduling at term’s commencement, and the large, flaccid penis he’d drawn on graph paper between the two neatly labelled axes, Energy and Time. Seb lightly etched a drip of semen at the bell’s end and then another mid-air, below it. Finally, he made playful use of two-dimensional space by pooling the already-dripped semen on and over the horizontal axis (Time). It made sense, he thought, that this cock be in a post-coital state given its exact positioning on these axes.

“…the word for this is entropy.” Mr. Dodd’s voice rises briefly above the apathy. “That is to say that the universe is entropic. It will age and decay until it reaches its terminus, inert. What is known as ‘heat death’. Everything is subject to entropy, everything moves from a state of order to disorder, from one of complexity to simplicity…”

“Except Brian, sir!”

“Why’s that Timothy?” Very obviously sardonic in tone.

“Cuz he can’t get any more simple, sir!”

Raucous laughter from the group of boys (primarily) whose sense of humour seems almost ectropic, formed entirely out of the wasted dead mass of those whose physiognomy or character thought not to cut mustard. The beginnings of a sociopathic, almost cyclical, shadenfreude at play, where the pain and suffering inflicted upon the pimpled swot, or athletically inferior teen, or Daisy, whose body claimed all hope of a happy childhood when it decided the optimal time for expulsion of menstruum would be in the communal girls showers and since then, when they all pointed and went “urgghhhhhhh, gross!”, she’s been deemed unworthy of inclusion in said group—well, that pain and suffering fuels the cackle. And the cackle’s raucous laughter, that hurts Brian all the more. Really, Brian’s done nothing to deserve being singled out, except maybe he’s just flavour of the month, and maybe Timothy spotted that Brian wasn’t listening in class and figured that Brian would come off a complete dunce if his head snapped up with ears pricked to find everyone laughing at him. Well, it’s worked, and Brian’s cheeks have reddened in some fist-clenched mix of anger and embarrassment. Timothy’s trailing laughter is renewed as he points at Brian and feigns constipation to bring his entire face to a rosy hue in imitation of the poor boy. The class erupts and even Mr. Dodd struggles to maintain a straight face—the ultimate bollock-kicking for Brian here: the beginnings of a smirk from the one adult in the room.

Seb looked on and realised that today’s lesson was effectively over… Order to disorder, he thought. Yep.

And that was it. That was the moment everything changed, when class appeared to descend into feeding-time at the primate enclosure.

In Seb’s bag, an uneaten banana, promised an end to his lassitude. It’ll have to wait until break, he thought, assuming it hasn’t blackened by then of course. Warm classroom; his bag, partially filled with still-sodden gym clothes—given enough time decay might be possible. He peeled his tongue from the roof of his mouth and tasted sock-sweat, cotton. Gross. And then the bell rang. Class was over.

While he waits for mum at the gates, to pull in and take him to Coding Dojo, his phone begins vibrating. It’s June and the late afternoon dry heat makes pink crackling of schoolchildren with tardy parents. ‘Stuffier than Minnie’s cleavage on Sports Day’, as Timothy’s been heard to say, and it gets played on repeat in Seb’s head every time it pushes 40C. Minnie, incidentally, is a year younger than Seb, yet fully-developed enough to engender a no-guilt response when it comes to sexual thoughts in which she might feature. But Minnie and his sister are classmates, and that’s always tainted things for Seb. Back pressed hard against the school wall, under a six-inch band of diminishing shade, he imagines one of his classmates rubbing one off to the image of his dear sibling. A classmate who, unlike Seb, had been picked up on time and was home already, tummy full of tea, dick in hand, the idea of semen emerging from prick still new enough to be novel. No-guilt quickly becomes so-much-guilt. It’s mum on the phone, and Seb has answered with his not-uncommon “What?!”—a prayer that his sister’s suitor’s willy might just entropy and drop off pre wank’s-apex cut short. Mum wasn’t going to make it—the car’s engine had failed to start. He’d never make it to Coding Dojo now.

Seb began the long walk home, the sun at his back becoming slowly neutered by cloud. He’d only walked the three miles home once before, when dad had ensconced with the family Volvo estate one afternoon and thenceforth vanished. It dawned on him that as a passenger in mum’s car he’d failed to absorb much in way of street names or building facades, and his frustration at having his plans dissolve hollowed his abdomen. The sky was overcast and to his right cars were trailing dust in both lanes. Some had engaged their headlights, illuminating the interplay of tail and headwinds. Miniature dust devils came in and out of existence, flashbacks of a sandstorm that had passed through town last week.

Angular cumulonimbus darkened and promised rain. Soon the dirt would wash from the cracked streets, packing and blocking the subdrains, leaving the roadsides arroyos, running fast and opaque. The rains were a great thing here, infrequent but monstrous, and Seb’s heart would still dance when lightning cracked. He’d count in threes tracing the storm’s approach—one of the few nuggets that Mr. Dodd had managed to impart. The dry air brought attention to his thirst and he swallowed an absence of saliva. Seb was tired, his glutes burned from the morning’s game and his shoulder ached from the strap of his bag. He had no choice but to keep moving…

Seb had walked two-thousand strides or thereabouts, unsure as to whether he was closer or farther away from home: that decaying place that lay fealty to his father’s phantom, still, years later. Choked by incessant fumes and dust clouds, which seemed to intensify as he approached a vaguely familiar intersection, Seb veered away from the pavement into an adjoining field and cut across its diagonal, parting the noxious air one rasping cough at a time. A handful of side roads had to be traversed but there were enough clearings between them to fuel him with a sense of progress.

He trudged for a whole hour at roughly the same pace, seeking refuge in his calculations: he’d walked almost three miles, his gait being what it was. He hoped some vestigial inkling of home remained by the time he returned; the home within home. Mum was likely sat in the kitchen, swirling a dully-clinking iced gin in decaying orbits while she waited for a mechanic or tow. The image of her smoking a cigarette, legs crossed, smoke rising into the room, wrenched at him. Waiting, as she had done for so long, for the uneven purr of the Volvo in the drive to terminate with a croak of handbrake.

Seb took the time on his walk-come-trek to absorb his environment. Almost meditatively he’d try and match the thing upon which his gaze was fixed to a memory. Maybe he’d been here before somehow, on his bike, or maybe it had washed passed his eyeline as he sat in a car’s passenger seat, but beyond recognition there was also distraction. Seb was a ponderer, a dreamer, and something even fans of his art failed to understand, was that he did his best thinking when capturing the light-play on tributaries of a veiny shaft, or when rendering shadow within configurations of clitoral hood and labia minora with a freshly sharpened 2B. Distraction was a pastime for him, and he found he could get some real quality rumination done when investing in a good set of genitals. He’d tried faces but they required a degree of concentration in their execution that detracted from his Zen. So he’d stuck with reproductive organs in their endless variegation, too oft maligned in adolescent abstraction: etched into cubicle walls of the boys’ loo or scribbled in thick permanent marker on Brian’s textbooks.

As he walked deeper through this unknown suburb, worms wriggled through his nervous system. He rubbed his upper arms to relieve them of gooseflesh, aware that the sky’s darkening could no longer be attributed entirely to cloud. It was getting late. Around him, Seb took in the array of off-white buildings smattering his periphery: the occasional low-rise apartment block, the odd shop whose metal-framed doors were closed, windows thick with dust. More prevalent were the one- or sometimes two-story houses that could almost be heard to sigh in relief as Seb walked by. Here, unlike the busier strip of his original route, the sense of defeat was pervasive, as if the entire neighbourhood had capitulated to the desert winds and taken in lungfuls of sand. Only the scratchy, abrasive quality of his steps on the dirt challenged the silence between breath-like flurries. Lengthened, ill-defined shadows overlapped like hazy Venn diagrams and the world took on a dim, dusk-blue iridescence that tugged at his tangled viscera. The gapped, inconsistent grin of the horizon teased no end to the alternating misery of decrepitude and voided lots. Distraction was in short order in this part of town. Everything had this eerie homogeneity that lent it an irrepressible futility and absence of meaning; and at that moment Seb believed that he would be always lost. He would become a vagrant, forever wandering back-streets, penniless, mouth full of decay, teeth simply plinking to the ground as he walked, trailing these macabre enamel breadcrumbs, too few and far between to be of any use.

Seb’s laced, soft-leather moccasins were pooling dirt in their recesses and he’d taken to shuffling, almost carving through the dry, weed-rippled earth. At the brink of immobilising fatigue, Seb caught sight of an intact, but no doubt brittle, snake-skin. Some part of him felt very much like that honeycombed skin, hollow, prone to breaking, a memory of a former, younger self.

Then the sky flashed white.

Before Seb’s learned response could fire in the neurons up there to start the count, a jowl-shaking crack rattled his chest, and he palmed his ears shut at the riotous peal that fractured the air. To his left he caught the trailing of sparks in the middle distance. Mouth agape, almost stupefied, he watched something glow pale blue and angry. Heartbeats were spasming in his chest. He stepped forward, with hesitation at first but then with purpose, eyes sanpaku-wide, fixed on this column-like shape that spun a haunting effulgence in the wind. That one crisp burst of white blindness had cleaved reality in two: from a dusty, haunted, cerulean-washed suburb to a featureless Prussian-blue nightmare, a spectral reality with Seb its sole inhabitant. His mind was ablaze with terror—the kind one only ever experiences in a dream, because only the mind in its REM-induced malice can invoke with such precision the architecture of dread.

This was not the world he knew, its purgatorial vacuity broken only by that middle-distant flaming sapphire, a beacon in the ever-darkening twilight. With each step closer to this brilliant thing his stride lengthened, harried by the gloom at his back and seeking refuge from its villainy. His pace quickened, fuelled by the fear he was being chased. Seb knew he was being irrational, but a subdural surge drove him forward on legs whose lactic-acid sting had somehow remitted. He was running, faster than he could ever remember running, and yet that crepuscular menace, invisible, inescapable, hung in the air. It gnawed at the buildings leaving their fascias bubbled and paint-chipped; it left timber frames porous and brittle, good for nothing but tinder; in driveways it wormed into car engines; and at home it yellowed mum’s fingernails, it siphoned her of joy and calcified her melancholia. It was everywhere. Except maybe whatever this thing that Seb was running towards, maybe it wasn’t there. And maybe, just maybe he could outrun the blight and find aegis within its penumbra. If only his legs could sustain this frenzied pace, feet thrumming the earth, heart promising to burst.

It loomed larger in his view now, trailing hazy phosphorescence with each shuddering footstrike. As the distance between Seb and the light narrowed, he noticed its blue was streaked with sulphurous yellow. It was starting to take shape, this thing. He was able to make out its hard boundaries for the first time, and as he barrelled down upon it, his mind raced toward cognisance. But then, a moment of doubt as the form became less vague; what he saw, what he might see if he stopped running and eyed it more carefully, was no saviour. It was altogether mundane. Too real to be any relief from the malevolent soup the air had become, now thick and deoxygenated in his lungs. He could hear it too, it was emitting a sound, loud enough to be audible over the shock waves rumbling his inner ear as he dashed through the night: a noise, persistent yet unrepeating—intense as an ocean. Fire. The scent of smoke had begun to coat Seb’s nasal cavity. In some unobserved recess of Seb’s mind he knew the origins of what shone—what burned—but he could not access or understand it. The surge within him, and the dying at his back drove him on; his mind void of reason and alight with adrenaline alone.

… A stone’s throw away and closing. Reality would not wait. Even if Seb chose to stop right that second, inertia would carry him beyond the point at which denial was an option. In a neural sub-routine somewhere that very thought popped and fizzled just as he blasted through it—no return.

… Flames two-stories high, or so it seemed to Seb, though he had no context for the fire’s size against this pelagic night. Sparks washed the sky in turbulent, striated arcs, in existence for the briefest of moments before they were gone, as though they’d never even existed at all, birthed from some sprawling, upturned parabola of rippling citrine and white gold, converging down into an angular, white-hot column that terminated deep in the ground like a gnarled trident.

… The air roared and steeped his head in pink noise. His eyes stung, the smoke opaque and rich with glowing wisps, drawn up in whorls by the heat until they opened out like ferns and became lost beyond the fiery ceiling under which Seb now found himself.

No longer running. No memory at having slowed or stopped. Just there, at this terminus, a trailing cloud of dust at his feet catching up to obscure everything below the knee. He stared at this hellish Disneyland, where the suspension of disbelief in the fantastic was somehow inverted—the curtain pulled, the veil lifted, a sudden, terrible loss only ever hinted at and altogether, until then, concealed.

The air was charged, a scorching ion vortex of bone-dry convection that billowed his shorts and shirt; his hair was tousled with static. He perceived a deep sadness here, and immediately recognised a universal truth—it was as if the fire’s intent was not to destroy, as if it mourned what it devoured, knowing that the death of what burned signalled its own demise to carbon and smoke. Yet it could not stop, ensnared by its own tragic rage.

Seb shielded his eyes from the blinding canopy and drew his gaze downward. He recognised it, this tree, despite the trunk’s molten craquelure. It was the towering, ancient olive tree he’d cycled past before (on one of those occasions where he’d been compelled to leave the house and go precisely nowhere as fast as his hairless, skinny legs could manage). The angle of its trunk was unmistakable, tapering up and to the left at an acute angle from the ground, terminating at a vertex, the point of creation, an umbrella of foliage and bitter fruits spilling up, out and around. It struck him as painfully familiar, this tree’s trunk, but beyond the memory of a lost, sunny afternoon and the clicking of pawls there was nothing. Deep ridges in the bark’s patterning had become gulches to flame, infernal blue and pale yellow rapids, rising like a double helix and blossoming into the tree’s fiery crown.

There was no safety here. Seb knew that now. The fire was one with the night, and there was nothing to do but watch it burn.


“So how did you get home, then?”

“Once it was light… I found my way back. It was a whole production really, mum’d called the police, had my uncle prowling the streets in his Toyota flat-bed all night. Fog lights on, shouting my name… Later that summer, he died.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”


“On your father’s side?”

“Yea, dad’s. Andrew. Mum had got her hopes up for the funeral y’know, to corner dad. That’s how ill she was. Wasn’t to be. Missed the funeral, didn’t even bother to come back to get the truck that Andrew left him… What are you smiling at?”

“You, Seb! I’m happy for you. I think you’ve done well. Made progress as we say.”

“Well, it doesn’t feel like it. Honestly, it feels pointless now.”

“I think you should give yourself more credit. You’ve stuck with it.”

“I was scared, so what? Mum liked the odd tipple, so what? About the tree? Just a tree. I don’t care about the tree.”

“Don’t you? Didn’t you?”

“Hmm, I don’t think so. If I had I would have tried to put the fire out or something. But I think I just didn’t want to.”

“The tree sounded old.”

“Yeah, no doubt.”

“And you watched it burn.”

“Mm. All night.”

“Until it went out.”


“It sounds like perhaps… you enjoyed it?”


“Perhaps just a little?”


“Fire can be beautiful.”

“I don’t know why I stayed. I think I regret that. Not leaving sooner.”

“Before it burned out, you mean?”


“I remember Guy Fawkes’ when I was young, I loved watching the fire in the back garden. I’d beg my parents to keep it going and going. I think if I’d had my way I would have grown up in a house with no furniture. Something primal about fire, don’t you think? Our ancestors even sought divinity in the flames.”

“I think I threw my pencil case in there, before it went out completely, when all that was left were the fiery embers. Pretty sure.”


“Huh! Don’t think I’ve really drawn since then if I think about it y’know. Not sure why even, guess it just seems, seemed, pointless.”

“Hmm… think it’s important to remember what brought you here. When your mother passed away you took it hard, as is normal, as is right, grief is a process, I certainly believe in the need to properly grieve. By your logic would you say that grief is pointless also?”

“Yes! It is pointless. That’s my point, I think.”

“Your point is that it’s pointless?”


“You have resisted grieving.”

Because … It’s pointless.”

“You may tell yourself that, but it’s your mother we’re discussing here. You wouldn’t be human if you were able to detach entirely from that. You need to grieve.”

“I grieved that night, the night of the fire. And I saw nothing divine. No visions in the flames.”

“Didn’t you think the fire was beautiful… on some level perhaps?”

“But it went out.



“Seb, you told me the story yourself, even if you’d forgotten it for a time, it was there somewhere. You remembered it, right? That’s worth something. ‘Everything’s pointless, everything dies’, okay, I accept you might believe that, so but where does that get you? Transience is the very essence of beauty for some.”

“You’re asking a lot of questions.”

“Ha! That’s kind of what I do, Seb. And I’m trying to make a point.”

“Not sure I see it, ‘everything’s pointless’ remember?”

“Okay, Seb… What do you remember of your mother?”


“Indulge me. Please.”

“Not a lot. A lot of nothing, a lot of inaction, waiting, doing ‘mum things’, but never really moving. Even when I try to picture her, she’s like a painting, never in motion, like everything around her can move but she’s there immobile, statuesque. Like those moving waterfall pictures you get in crappy Chinese takeaways, alive but without… life.”

“She had her own struggles and you saw them as a child. Not easy for anyone, let alone a young boy.”

“She didn’t do anything with her life… and then she died.”

“But you remember her. Her life was not pointless, was it? Not fully realised perhaps—”


“—and you came here to avoid the same, uh, inactivity. But she loved you from what you’ve told me. You loved her.”


“Everything’s fleeting. But you can still remember her. Doesn’t that make her life worth something?”

“Even memories fade, Mary.”

“Like your memory of the fire?”

Seb smiled.


“Yes, Seb?”

“The fire…”


“It was the last truly beautiful sight of my life.”

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