Standing in an unlit back alley before a tall, decaying wooden fence, I was pretty sure I found the house. All the landmarks I was told to watch for were spread out around me; a motorcycle lay on its side to my right, a blue garage sat behind me, and the raspberry bush to my left was reaching far out into the alley waiting to scratch passing vehicles.
I could hear people speaking and a dog barking from beyond the fence. Standing up on my tiptoes, I looked over to check for a familiar face. A group of people sat around a fire pit. Someone stood and stoked the fire with a stick. They all glowed red. Seated in a short plastic lawn chair, the person who invited me waved and said hello.
“Hi.” I ducked back down. On flat feet I opened my second warm beer, drank half, then opened the gate.
I was introduced to everyone and someone grabbed a camping chair for me to sit on. Between choking on the smokey air and not really knowing anyone, I didn’t talk much. I was happy just to relax among the easy conversations of good friends.
The air was cold so I kept moving my chair closer and closer to the fire. I took my shoes off to wiggle my naked toes next to the flames. The heat was powerful. My legs pushed and pulled, closer and farther, being moved by the chasing and receding fire rather than my intentions. Had I ever really realized how significant it is to be greatly swayed, one way or the other, by something external? I lowered myself onto the ground to stretch out on the toasty cinder blocks next to the dog. I would lean into the influence and welcome the manipulation.
It was simple worship, surely. All of us sat in a tight circle around the fire like it was the sun, waiting to be the target of its smoke so we could act annoyed at being chosen. Was this clear enough, or should we have verbalized our adoration for it to count?
I turned to my friend, ready to practice prayer for the first time. “Remarkable heat today.”
He agreed, and pet the dog’s head with his hand stiff with cold. “Was it hot outside, that time we hung out in a garage? Do you remember that?” he asked.
“No, it was winter. We could see our breath.”
I was heating up. The dog’s fur was hot to the touch.
We caught each other up on our lives, mostly letting the flames push us towards stories with transcendental undertones. The strangers talked above my head and the dog whined below it. First we ran out of beer, and then we ran out of wood. I had to watch the fire die. Starving, it reached out for us until it collapsed with an empty belly.
In the absence of the heat I felt very alone, and it was only exacerbated when my friend tried to keep our conversation going. I couldn’t care about anything he was saying without the fire there, telling me to. My head felt empty even though it was full of everyone’s voices mixing with that loud drunk sound deep in my ears. I asked if we could go in the hot tub and hoped that the potential for fun would help hide my heat seeking behavior.
“We keep this closed up so mosquitoes don’t lay eggs in the water,” he explained. He turned the jets on and created a boiling environment, unlikely to nurture any life. I got in immediately. Everyone else left their seats surrounding the embers and got in, too. The heat was irresistible to us all, even the insects.
The bubbling water was attentive and supporting and I felt full again, round and bloated in a rolling boil. The dog was sitting next to me, his hair just long enough to float in the water like seaweed. His owner was talking a lot and it was hard to follow.
“Sleep disturbances are like mine entrances. If you look deep enough inside of them, you will find their root causes. You should never take a nightmare lightly because you are trying to tell yourself something through it. It’s easier to ignore it but it’ll just keep growing.”
My friend looked nervous and reached his hand out to pat the wet dog on the head again. “I just dream that I’m late for work, which seems pretty straightforward.”
“Lately I’ve been stuck with the feeling that we’re running out of time.” I said it without thinking and immediately wished I hadn’t. Dog Owner turned his focus onto me and asked me who I dream about, what we do, where we are. The dog turned his head toward me after each question, head sideways like a question mark.
“What color is the sky in your dreams? Do you feel heavy or light? Does it feel like you’re in the present or catching up to it?”
“I close my eyes at night and I open them in the morning. I dream of no one and no things the entire time.” I looked Dog Owner in the eye after saying this and didn’t see anything challenging in them, which made me feel bad. The dog pawed at the water, avoiding eye contact.
I told them about my most recent dream in which a spider bit my tooth and left a hole traveling through gum and bone. I gargled with olive oil to clean it out, but it coated my brains. For the rest of my life I got a headache if I went in the sun. After my retelling I realized that I did end up getting sick from the sun that day.
“Was that a nightmare to you?”
The dog looked up at me, waiting. I was thinking about the lives of the creatures who aren’t built to appreciate warmth, the ones who feel heat sick if they aren’t in cool dirt or hidden away from daylight. Worms deserve to enjoy warmth, but their tiny bodies aren’t equipped to be loved by the sun. Is this why they are worth less than me? Am I self righteous? Was it a nightmare?
I was sinking lower and lower into the water. My head went under, and I let myself roll around, gargling hot water while being pushed by the knees of other people and the jets of the hot tub.
EMILY BUECKERT is an artist from Edmonton, Alberta. She has been published in Filling Station, The Bookends Review, Pif Magazine and Gut Flora. She has self published work in several writing-based zines, two of which have been positively reviewed in Broken Pencil Magazine.
The art published alongside this story is by Anna Buckley.