Faces in the Flames

The discernible omission of publication pertaining to WaterFire circulated infamously throughout northeast editorial circles. It became frequent water cooler chinwag that while the metropolitan publication of record, The Providence Journal, related Barnaby Evans’ art installation at regular intervals, other intervening agencies proved abortive in their attempts. The absent narratives were not the repercussions of New England media failing to send representatives to Providence. The fourth estate dispatched their talent – an enterprise journalist from Poughkeepsie, New York; a TV reporter from Bangor, Maine; and even a podcaster from Newport, Vermont – to cover the staged inferno on Providence’s three rivers. The reporters were eager to meticulously examine this WaterFire phenomenon, displaying the very childlike curiosity and yen for knowledge that evoked their careers years earlier. However, all newspaper, TV, radio and web correspondents arrived at the same denouement. After a solitary day in the city, they abruptly e-mailed resignation notices to their respective employers, professing an ardent adulation to Providence and vowing to never return to their hometowns. Ship our belongings the way of the post, they wrote. Send our admiration to family and friends. Please visit upon earliest convenience, they concluded without including a forwarding address.

It was with this strange precedent that I found myself in Kennedy Plaza in July of 2015. The wide-open gray cement plaza brimmed with people, RIPTA busses, and parked taxicabs with “off-duty” signs during the early evening hour. “One with everything, please,” I asked hungrily. The man in the grease-splattered apron ladled a spoonful of thick, steaming sludge atop a wiener. “Two fitty.” “Keep the change,” I said, handing the man in the apron three crisp paper bills. I looked at myself in the reflective Haven Bros. food truck to see a mirrored middle-age man with thinning chestnut-colored hair and an expanding waistline. Using the pen name “Howard Temple,” I had built myself a formidable newspaper reputation while my girth grew vast. I pined for my hometown, Mendon, Massachusetts, as I sauntered away from the aluminum-covered food truck. At least Providence still preserved its iconic buildings, I thought, as I admired from below the building of Superman, a tiered-cement skyscraper heralding a time of Jazz and jamborees. A meaty brown slop oozed from the bun and splattered onto my loafers. I relinquished a deep sigh. My publication wanted an exclusive on WaterFire, a silly phenomenon I pondered. How could anyone evolved become pleasantly transfixed whilst staring into flames? I fought my editor on this assignment. “Send someone else,” I pleaded. “Someone who can stomach the city.” My innards cringed thinking back. Or, was it something else? I felt a bead of sweat form on my brow. A refreshing liquid would wash down the mechanically separated meat. I started traipsing towards Trinity Brewhouse.

Somewhere near The Boombox, my gut bellowed an encore to the karaoke singers’ ‘Hold On’ inside. How could I still be hungry? My stomach growled deep and low, sounding like whispers of hungry hounds in the dark. Twilight had been superseded by a navy night sky ironically absent of Hydra and other constellations thanks to the urban incandescence. Cool air greeted me upon entrance to the brew house. “You don’t look so good, chap,” said a bald gent wearing a scally cap. I peered back at myself in the dusty reflective glass past wooden beer taps. “I look like a terrible old man. Must have been something I ate.” A man in an onyx Stetson hat suddenly appeared at my left shoulder. “Wasn’t anything you ate, mister,” he stated with cool confidence. I wondered why he troubled himself. As far as I could tell, this was a city of strangers. “You’re not from around here, are you?” “Yes. How’s this of your interests,” I tried to politely inquire, but my learned manners failed me. “We need men like you,” the man replied. He laid a hand on my bony shoulder. A tingling sensation like an electrical shock reverberated through my body. “This is Providence.” The man was gone through the heavy oak door before I could inquire further. I ordered a Larkin stout and pondered the enigmatic exchange.

A dry stout always calmed my stomach before. The earth-colored liquor failed me this time. My gut growled and groaned from side to side, a deep throb picking a new, unnamable location every 10 minutes. A sharp poke would strike on the 10-minute mark. I wished I had an alchemist to procure a medicinal remedy. “Excuse me,” I called out to the busy bartender with sleeves of multi-colored ink. “Is there a pharmaceutical shop in the vicinity?” “There’s a CVS down the street,” she said, “At the mall.” “Thank you,” I managed to squeak out through a sharp pang.

Somewhere between Trinity and Finnegan’s Wake, my direction became consigned to oblivion. Instead of turning toward the commercial complex, I descended upon the dark sidewalks of Westminster, turning down a shadow-filled alley and stumbling out onto a wide street pockmarked with electrical street lamps. My internal pain pulsated in sync with a nearby incandescent buzzing in and out of existence. I lunged over a black-fenced litter barrel, but evacuation eluded me. “Hey man, you ok?” inquired a stranger in the darkness. I looked up to find a peculiar image in the shadows. The stranger was garbed in a Revolutionary War uniform from head to ankle with a musket at his side. The rest of him told a different story with thick, white socks and Birkenstock sandals. “I feel sick,” I replied. “My stomach…hurts…” “Man, that stinks. You’s feel melting?” While “melting” was a queer way to describe my fever, yes, I felt like I was shedding myself. “A bit,” I replied. “What of it?” “Shift happens, man,” he remarked. “It’ll be quick.” He gripped an icy palm on my shoulder. I instantly felt that same prickling sensation down my spine. “This is Providence, man,” the stranger said before dissolving into the darkness.

This is crazy, I thought to myself. If I don’t leave soon, I will succumb to this madness. I trudged toward WaterFire, keeping a guarded watch around me. I paused outside an anomalous structure, which appeared more suitable for Athens, Greece, than Providence, Rhode Island. Ionic Greek columns adorned the façade. Inside, brightly lit stores beckoned patronage. Outside, a man dressed in a navy suit and a bright, lobster-red tie shook hands. “When I’m mayor, I’ll revitalize this city,” he said. “Excuse me, sir. Could I have a moment to discuss Providence’s future?” The man held out a large sweaty palm, in which I caught like a spinning baseball in a mitt. The instant the two appendages met in handshake, a feverous tingling shot its way through me. The body seizure lasted only 20 seconds, but its memory would last the remainder of my natural lifetime. Simultaneously, I felt a bizarre poke from my stomach as if something was trying to escape a prison of flesh and bones. The prisoner succumbed as soon as the ten fingers broke their embrace. “What on earth…was that,” I gasped. “I have to depart,” the candidate said with sweat beading on his forehead whilst glancing around feverishly. “I will be late for the ceremony. Remember, this is Providence.” He then dematerialized into dark corridors like smoke through a window crack.

The pain continued to pulsate rapidly as I proceeded toward the ceremony and, I hoped, an answer to this nightmarish puzzle. I turned a corner and faced a crowd lining the river. Flames shot up from the inky waters. I heard a rhythmic hum from the crowd, who were chanting in unison. Strange, I thought. I listened closer to hear “Agni, Agni, Agni” again and again. “Welcome, Howard,” said the stranger with the Stetson, who appeared at my left. “Welcome, to the truth.” “What is the truth,” I replied, desperately wanting to know. Men and women chanted “Agni” louder and louder. They stared into bright flames, growing higher and higher. “The gods need their sacrifice,” he said nonchalantly. “This is Providence.”

A man grabbed my left arm, while a woman took hold of my right, raising me off the ground with supernatural strength. I opened my mouth to protest, but released silence when I felt my stomach begin to stretch like rubber. A bloody finger began to peek out from underneath my shirt. That was the last I witnessed before succumbing to eternal darkness. A creature emerged from the remains of Howard’s innards, covered in blood and pus but with every physical feature belonging to the dead man from Mendon. The creature exited Howard’s now shell of a body, shedding the flesh like a heavy winter coat. The new Howard joined the other creatures, while the two strangers threw his former flesh upon the flames as sacrifice. Some call these creatures the true beings. I would call them occult assassins since my mind could not fathom “the change.” For me, this was my denouement. This was my Providence.

S.E. McGee

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