We don’t have much to go on: EMOTE threat near the Capitol. We call it that out of habit, though the building went up right along with the politicians years ago. Now it’s simply the No-Go Zone; among those ruins lies the Black Market, or so the story goes. When the fire bell starts clanging, we throw on our silvers, slide down the pole into the truck, and blast through the pitted streets, sirens wailing. Thick black plumes drift up into the cloudless blue from behind a crumbling wall. We park the truck in the old circle drive.

Get fired up, y’all, Firechief Bob hollers, and we pile out, pulling on our masks, pawing at extinguishers. We ready the hoses, then dodge people in various states of dress and consciousness, sitting in the lotus, meditating on purpose-made benches, contorting their bodies into crane pose, tree pose, downward-facing dog. We climb through rubble toward the smoke.

It’s just a hobo campfire: trash and scrap wood and thrift store clothing. All the smoke’s from half-burning tires.

False alarm, we tell each other through the headsets in our masks. Then we trample the fire with our heatproof boots, dousing the vagrants with Flameout foam for good measure.

Out, flame! we say.

Flame out!

The bums gaze up at us with hollow, empty eyes.

As we amble back to the truck, we focus on the deep, meditative breathing that echoes through the city like wind through a canyon. But somewhere in the near distance: screaming and maniacal laughter. We glance over our shoulders at the torched remains of the Capitol. In the shadows, a flickering neon sign and the weird purple glow of black lights. Soot-covered faces, yelling and cackling, mouths smeared with BBQ sauce. Strange popping and hissing. We yank off our masks. We blink, rub our eyes, blink again. Nothing but charred bricks, resonant chanting, and regular, meditative breathing. Firechief Bob’s glare feels hot against our skin. We suck in a deep breath, replace our masks, then climb up into the truck and head home.

 

Back at the firehouse, we gather in the meeting room for the post-incident debrief.

Sloppy today, boys, says Firechief Bob.

But it was a false alarm, we protest.

How you figure? We wait; he mops sweat from his big red face. Any one of them meditators or yogafiers coulda been our hombre, but y’all just tramped right on through.

The notion never crossed our minds.

Gotta think smart, boys. EMOTE ain’t no laughing matter.

We’ve heard all the stories about the Ejército Mundial del Organización Terrorista de Emoción, or EMOTE. Somehow, people are still spontaneously combusting despite most everybody embracing Zen equanimity and bland tofu-centered diets. So we have to wonder: Did those bums’ eyes twinkle with delight? Were they snickering and gnashing their gold teeth behind those unkempt beards? Were their faces covered with Black Market soot?

Y’all was like moths to the flame, says Firechief Bob, mopping sweat.

We swallow hard but say nothing. The refrigerator hums. Low, steady chanting resonates down the street.

And that ain’t gonna hack it, he says. Not even close.

We’re rusty, we say.

Lazy, he says.

Numb, we say.

Dumb, he says.

We gaze at him. He grimaces, then wipes his face. The digital mood monitor on the wall climbs from yellow to orange.

Y’all seen how close we was to the Black Market.

Where it’s rumored to be, we say.

Den of sin, he says, shaking his head. EMOTE’s nerve center.

Allegedly, we say.

Take it from me: them rumors is all true.

None of us knows what to make of that, so we say nothing, faces blank, minds empty. It’s what all the gurus teach.

Firechief Bob sucks in a deep, calming breath. Just keep out of the No-Go Zone, he says. Y’all remember what happened to ol’ Billy Peterson.

Only thing we remember is the story: combination burrito with extra jalepeños, game of five-card stud, pair of hookers, and the next thing anybody knew, the poor bastard exploded into a ball of flames. Nothing left but a grease stain on the chipped concrete.

Drills tomorrow, says Firechief Bob. Don’t be late.

 

For the next week, we run situational exercises on the training course out behind the firehouse. At least it’s something different. We’re not idling around in our bunks, reading Zen koans and eating steamed broccoli with rice. But Firechief Bob’s on a mission, coaching us on every possible EMOTE treachery. Truth is, he runs us ragged, so when we get to mandatory post-shift meditation, most of us fall dead asleep right there on our mats. Happens in evening yoga classes, too. One minute, we’re holding dove pose, the next, we’re out like a light.

Some days we don’t even make it that long. Firechief Bob won’t stand for us passing out during après-drill meetings, snoring into our hairy arms and drooling all over the conference table, but we get the head-snaps something fierce. We’ve heard-tell of Black Market wonders, including espresso strong enough to revive a dead horse and iced tea with a defibrillator kick. We could use some right about now—if, that is, the Black Market really exists.

On the seventh straight day of drills, we drag ourselves, dog-tired, into the meeting room and flump into squeaky swivel chairs. Outside, Ommm echoes through the streets, rattling the windowpanes.

Good work today, says Firechief Bob.

We respond in mumbles and moans.

You boys is looking plumb tuckered. Firechief Bob hitches up his great big canvas pants, then stuffs a meaty mitt into his pocket. He passes around a plastic baggie filled with little pills, orange on one side, red on the other. We each palm one. This’ll perk you right up, he says.

We squint at the pills, at Firechief Bob, at each other.

Down the hatch, he says. That’s an order.

We feel a surge, followed by a kick. A wet, blooming heat. We can just make out a muted pop-and-hiss.

Firechief Bob’s eyes blaze. Better, ain’t it?

We nod, watching each other’s faces twitch. It’s possible we all start speaking at the same time, ideas pouring out of our mouths like Flameout foam from a fire hose. Then again, maybe not. Firechief Bob lets on nothing, his red gaze serene.

We stay awake through meditation and yoga for the first time all week. Truth is, we’ve never felt more focused.

What are those pills? we wonder.

Where did he get them?

Where can we get more?

Nobody wants to admit we already know.

 

We’re in the middle of lunch (chickpeas and white rice, spinach salad) when the call comes in. We’re into our silvers and down the pole in nothing flat, shaved carrots sticking to our scruff. As we barrel through the streets, Firechief Bob passes around the magic baggie of orange-and-red pills.

We’re happy to oblige.

He directs us toward the river. Active EMOTE cell near the First Street bridge, he says.

Now we’re out of the truck, dragging hoses, setting a perimeter, flanking the bums huddling around another trash-barrel fire. A few of us douse the possible EMOTE operatives in Flameout foam, then roll the barrel into the river. Others of us attend to people meditating up and down the riverbank. They’re Zen masters and Taoist sages, or pretending to be. After Firechief Bob’s drills, we know to treat them all as potential threats bent on undermining the collective equanimity. They’re tranquil and unmoving, their Ommm chants and steady suck-and-blow carrying across the open water, but we don’t let it fool us. Their hearts may be full of hatred, which they’d only need to focus for a split second: an expansion of air, that telltale pop-and-hiss, then, boom. A chain reaction would follow, bodies bursting into flames, a great, screaming firestorm—and our Flameout crew smack in the middle of it. It’s the very situation Firechief Bob has been training us for. So we let loose with the foaming flame retardant, then relay the all-clear through our headsets.

Out, flame! we say.

Flame out!

 

The orange-and-red buzz lasts through the post-incident debrief. We can’t remember when we’ve had this much fun. Firechief Bob doesn’t say anything, but we have a feeling he understands. Plus, he’s stoked about our performance today.

That’s what I’m talking bout, he says.

We all exchange warm gazes and thumbs-ups.

That’s the way a Flameout crew’s spozed to act, he says.

Ommm works its way through the cooling ducts, washing over us like dry ice.

Take tomorrow morning off, says Firechief Bob. Y’all earned it.

We’re blown away, all but completely. A reward such as this one is unprecedented in our entire history with Flameout, which, admittedly, hasn’t been all that long. Still, we stay planted in our squeaky swivel chairs long after Firechief Bob has adjourned the post-incident meeting, jaws slack, eyes glazed. Then somebody says, Lunch, and that breaks the spell. Though why is a mystery, since today it’s cauliflower and couscous.

Afterwards, we retire to our bunks. Talking is verboten during siesta, yet a couple-three of us hit upon the same orange-and-red idea. Maybe it’s telepathy; probably it’s obvious. We ditch afternoon meditation, skulking through the afternoon heat. It’s all we can do to avoid gurus and swamis and sages stacked three deep on sidewalks, meditating on the Ommm.

The Black Market’s easier to find than we expect. We simply follow the crowds: a few shady types become a steady stream of hooligans in patched dungarees. By now, we’re down near the Capitol, just two walls and half a dome, a monument to another time, back before the epidemic torched the major metropolitan areas and turned the fringe elements mainstream. Anyway, we know we’ve come to the right place. There’s a flickering neon sign that says Black Market, for one thing. Plus, people’s faces are covered in greasy soot. Though we recognize what it means (Combustion Events), we take it in stride.

The Black Market doesn’t disappoint. We doubted the rumors, and most of us wouldn’t even admit the place existed, but here we stand. Folks snicker, cackle, and guffaw as if there isn’t an immediate threat of spontaneous combustion. We hear knock-down, drag-out arguments and shouts of joy and delight; we witness raging, brawny brawls. We duck for cover again and again, vulnerable without our silver suits, yet not once do any of them burst into flames. Despite our even-keeled concern, we carry on.

And we’re rewarded for our perseverance. Women in corsets, thongs, and thigh-highs on divans beneath a sign that reads Ruby Love’s. Jack Daniels flowing into shot glasses, highballs, men’s greedy, open mouths. Games of chance, from blackjack to Texas hold ’em, craps to roulette. Rich, heady aromas, too: tobacco, cloves, and hashish; cumin and oregano; onions and garlic in fragrant olive oil. Plus, everywhere, the sizzle of grilling meat. Our mouths won’t stop watering. We meander down one tarp-covered alley after another, muttering to ourselves, backhanding away the drool. We lose focus, forgetting what brought us here. Hours pass.

We finally slink back to the firehouse in the inky light of dusk.

 

Over the next week, we abscond daily. The entire Flameout crew roving through the hot wind toward the Black Market. Word will likely get back to Firechief Bob, but there’s strength in numbers. Soon as that neon sign flickers into view, we tell jokes, rib each other, and high-five, laughing and grab-assing the whole way in. These are our new selves, blooming in the strange, purplish light.

Then we dive into the maelstrom, biting our tongues when we hear Firechief Bob speaking through us: Y’all are playing with fire, boys. Because the truth is, although on occasion we’ve heard that distinctive pop-and-hiss, we have yet to witness a Combustion Event—not a single one, despite the range of human emotion on regular, brazen display. We haven’t even heard anybody talking about the threat. Far as we can tell, the soot comes mainly from BBQ grills.

It doesn’t take long for us to fall into a routine. Maybe it’s not something we’d write home about, but then again, none of us ever really had one. Parents deceased or missing, brought up on farms and ranches across this great state. Also, we’re quiet and even-tempered, disciplined and good with our hands. It’s taken most of our time together to realize how much we have in common. We even look alike: six-foot two, muscular, athletic.

Anyway, our M.O. We swill J.D. and play five-card draw, then we wander on down to Ruby Love’s for a romp. Once we’ve had our fill, we make a beeline for the best grub any of us has ever tasted, stuffing ourselves with three-alarm chili and extra-hot buffalo wings, spicy brisket sandwiches and cheese enchiladas smothered in chili con carne. Everything with a side of fresh jalapeños grown in some so-called EMOTE terrorist’s well-tended garden.

Any one of these leisure pursuits could, in theory, result in spontaneous combustion. Matter of fact, that’s what should happen. Now bundle them up together, then figure in how often we parade through the No-Go Zone, and we ought to be six-foot-two grease stains on the pitted concrete. Only that’s not what happens. Instead, we go back for Szechuan chicken and Cajun gumbo, beef vindaloo and drunken noodle. We visit Ruby Love’s lovely ladies till we can’t stand up. We go all in at the card table. We guzzle whiskey till we’re sloppy drunk, listing and stumbling into soot-faced strangers.

We’ve never felt better.
 

~  ~  ~

 
At our Monday meeting, Firechief Bob paces the room, face a mask of serenity. But there’s a charge in the air. We can feel it.

Boys, he says, we got some new recruits coming in.

Our guts churn. The ferocious sunlight maims our eyes. The constant Ommm makes our heads throb.

What for? we ask.

Firechief Bob mops sweat from his big red face. To help us fight the scourge of Nonstandard Combustion Events, is why.

That means EMOTE attacks. We exchange furtive glances. The digital mood monitor on the wall dances between orange and red.

Firechief Bob balls his meaty mitts into fat red fists. We gotta fight fire with fire, y’all.

We struggle to swallow, our mouths full of cotton. Then we ask: Did we do something wrong, Firechief Bob?

The faintest of smiles ripples across his placid gaze. He’d have to be blind not to notice our bloodshot eyes, hard of smelling to ignore the garlic on our breath and whiskey seeping from our pores.

Why, hell no! says Firechief Bob. Our firehouse is a shining example of even-tempered effectiveness. He wipes his face. Whole point’s to train these sumbitches and send them back where they come from. Got EMOTE cells far and wide.

Our guts roil and gurgle. A couple of us stagger toward the toilets.

Although Firechief Bob’s gaze remains empty, he grips the back of a squeaky swivel chair like he might crush it.

 

The new recruits begin arriving a couple days later. By the end of the week, we’re full up, eating two to a chair, sleeping two to a bed, all piled on top of each other in the truck on training runs. When we look at our trainees, it’s like looking in the mirror. They’re all six-foot-two, muscular, athletic. We’re not surprised to learn their parents are dead or disappeared, and they were raised on farms and ranches across this great state. They’re eager and willing and wet behind the ears. They’ll fit right in.

We run them through the basics: silver suits and fire pole, truck and extinguishers. Then we help them navigate situational exercises on the training course out behind the firehouse. They don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground, but they’ll come around.

Get up them stairs, y’all! hollers Firechief Bob. That fire ain’t gonna put itself out!

At the top of the high tower, the new recruits suck wind. We can’t blame them; those fire hoses are a lot heavier than they look. From seven stories up, we watch Firechief Bob scribbling notes in his notebook

Who’s he evaluating? we wonder.

Us?

Or them?

The new recruits are smart enough to keep their traps shut. They spit and backhand sweat from their brows, then pull their masks back on and barrel down the staircase, folding hose as they go.

We dream of naked haunches and spicy brisket.

 

After the post-training debrief and a hearty lunch of alfalfa sprouts and brown rice, we all take a much-needed siesta. The new recruits wind up in a mound on the floor. When the bell rings, we stretch and yawn, then usher them to meditation. We wait for them to sink into a deep trance, then we’re out the door, popping orange-and-red pills from the baggie Firechief Bob left on the counter, slouching toward the burnt-out Capitol.

We eat, we drink, we make merry.

But something’s off. Even as we’re indulging in the Black Market’s splendors, the hair on the back of our necks tingles, and it feels as if we’re being followed. It happens to each of us. We sense a shadowy, lurking presence. Yet when we glance over our shoulders, there’s nothing but the usual Black Market hullabaloo.

Now the blackjack dealer seems suspicious, the bartender cagey. The waitresses at Los Bomberos and Jake’s Chilidogs ignore our flirtatious patter. Even the girls at Ruby Love’s seem shifty, refusing to look us in the eye as they cater to our every whim and desire. We don’t know what to make of it.

Then, outside Golden Dragon, an old Chinese man perched on a milk crate waves us over. The soot on his face cracks as he hacks and spits. We lean in close, despite the stench of fish sauce. He clears his throat again, then says:

The fire you kindle for your enemies burns you more than them.

What does it mean? we wonder.

Is it a riddle?

Why does it sound like a threat?

 

We take a few days off to detox and recuperate. But old habits die hard, like the feller says. It’s not long before we’re ditching our afternoon sessions again, slipping right back into our old routine. And that’s when we spot him:

Firechief Bob.

There’s no clear indication he’s the one who’s been spying on us—if, in fact, anyone has. But it can’t be a coincidence, can it? Because we tumble out of the Lucky Seven, bottles of J.D. in hand and drunk as a skunk, and there he stands outside Szechuan Palace, to-go bag in hand, jawing with soot-faced patrons and proprietors alike, acting like he’s known them his entire life. We’re so lit, we almost say, Howdy, Firechief Bob, and offer him a drink. Instead, we make a break for it, hustling back to the firehouse.

You’d think that would cure us, but it only piques our curiosity.

We don’t see him the next day or the day after that, though we prowl the bars and gambling rooms and drug dens, and we overstay our welcome at Ruby Love’s. But on the third day, we spot him again—or he spots us.

If it ain’t my favorite Flameout crew, says Firechief Bob.

We can’t even stammer.

Y’all run off the other day fore I could even say howdy. Where’s the fire? is what I was wondering.

He guffaws, slapping us on the back, each in turn. Never have we seen Firechief Bob so openly jovial. That’s when we round on him:

What brings you to the Black Market? we ask.

Isn’t the No-Go Zone off-limits?

What kind of example are you setting?

Firechief Bob grins bigger than Texas, then holds up a clear, three-quart plastic bag full of orange-and-red pills. They jump and dance when he shakes the bag, rattling together like teeth. Y’all think these little beauties grow on trees?

We chew our fat tongues.

Firechief Bob chuckles. See y’all back at the ranch.

 

Shortly thereafter, Firechief Bob starts favoring the new recruits. He offers them our beds and our seats in the truck. He gives them privileged space in the locker room and the best places at the conference table. Firechief Bob insists this is the final stage of training, but it feels more like punishment to us.

That’s why we stay on the straight and narrow for a few days. Although we don’t sleep well in a sweaty pile on the wood planking, we’re up before dawn, raring to go. When a call comes in, which isn’t often, we’re first into our silvers and down the pole (freshly polished by us), never mind we have to hang onto the truck for dear life as we blast through the city, since the new recruits occupy all the seats. We participate when invited at post-incident debriefs, and we clean our plates at lunch. We’re first asleep during siesta and first awake for meditation and yoga, which we actually attend instead of stealing through the afternoon heat to indulge our new vices. But we make no headway; none. It’s business-as-usual, far as Firechief Bob’s concerned. The new recruits retain their privileges.

We all agree: enough’s enough.

So we bide our time, going through the motions at the firehouse. We lead when we’re asked to lead, follow when we’re asked to follow. We pick at our kale-and-radish salads, spread our tofu and English peas around our plates. Our resentment smolders. The digital mood monitor on the wall climbs from orange to red. Soon as siesta comes, we tiptoe out of the firehouse, lubing the squeaky door hinges as we go.

Down at the Black Market, we play blackjack and five-card stud and craps, and we can’t lose. We swill J.D. till our eyes float. The girls at Ruby Love’s give us more than a roll in the hay, too, feeding us jambalaya, Korean BBQ, and spicy eggplant right there in bed. We wolf down orange-and-red pills, three at a time. Ire burns in our chests.

The popping and hissing grows louder, closer, more frequent.

Mainly, that’s because we move into the Black Market. It happens just like that. We abscond permanently from the firehouse and take up residence at Ruby Love’s. We’re paying customers and welcome guests. We, meaning some of us. A few members of our Flameout crew, uncomfortable with the new freedoms, scurry back to the safety of the firehouse, the warmth of familiar paradigms.

Flameout calls escalate in the days following our relocation. Are they legit? Impossible to tell. From where we sit, ensconced in crimson velvet, Ruby Love’s harlots warming our hearts, we’re apt to call them false alarms. Still, the slap of fire boots echoes down back alleys. The pop-and-hiss swells. A few times, minor explosions shimmy through the bordello, shaking us from our beds. The stench of charred meat hangs on the smoke-filled air. We make out the whoosh of Flameout foam, its dense, minty odor. Then that familiar call-and-response:

Out, flame!

Flame out!

It could all be a ruse. We know this. But we’re concerned nevertheless, particularly since some of our favorite establishments have been torched, tarp covers melted, counters turned to cinder and ash. The Lucky Seven and Hair o’ the Dog and Mirch Masala: all of them—poof!—up in smoke. Standard Combustion Events? EMOTE attacks? Flameout provocations? Anything’s possible.

We ask around, but everyone’s mum.

Temperatures skyrocket as we sink into the dog days. The Black Market seethes and bustles, so thick with bodies it’s almost impossible to move. We spend most of our time at Ruby Love’s, lying in hammocks slung in front of portable AC units, box fans blowing on high. Still, the air feels sweaty. We can’t seem to cool down, no matter how many cold Lone Stars we guzzle. We grow accustomed to the regular pop-and-hiss, the sidelong glances, the mumbled, furtive comments.

Maybe we don’t know exactly what’s coming, but we have a notion. Everyone does. Bartenders and croupiers, waitresses and Ruby Love’s girls. We can see it in their rheumy, distant gazes, hear it in their smugly sympathetic voices. And we wonder: Do they know about an imminent EMOTE attack? Are we the targets? Would anyone tell us if we were?

But make hay while the sun shines, like the feller says. We down J.D. and bet the family farm. We fornicate with Ruby Love’s girls, two and three at a time, like there’ll be no tomorrow. We gorge ourselves on fajita burritos and tikka masala and chopped beef sandwiches smothered in spicy sauce. We keep ourselves wired on orange-and-red pills 24/7. The pop-and-hiss comes from everywhere and nowhere, fanning the flames of our paranoia.

Some of us consider crawling back to the firehouse, but what good would it do?

 

In the purplish flicker of black lights, Ruby Love’s girls chant, Time to pay up, time to pay up, time to pay up. They’re light on their feet, ready to spring for cover.

The rate used to be weekly. Then daily. Now hourly. We’re short of funds since our luck’s gone cold. We’ve been losing money hand over fist, filthy lucre slipping through our fingers like water. We chugalug J.D., though it does nothing to quell the fire burning in our chests.

And remember, sing Ruby Love’s girls, cash only, cash only, cash only.

We lunge at them, flailing wildly as they dance out of reach. We wind up sprawled-out on the chipped concrete floor, red-faced and breathless.

The girls skitter to the corners, ducking beneath flame-retardant blankets.

Before the pop-and-hiss rises and swells and deafens us forever, we think we hear the firehouse bell clanging. Though our vision’s clouded, we can just make out the new recruits slipping on their silvers and sliding down the pole, climbing into the truck and careening through the streets toward the burnt-out Capitol. Synchronized EMOTE attacks, says Firechief Bob. Black Market’s burning. Fire boots slap the pitted concrete. Uncoiling hoses slither and whine. Flameout foam whooshes. But what we’re waiting for never comes: Out, flame! Flame out! Instead, Firechief Bob hollers, She’s a goner, y’all. Let her burn. In that split second before everything bursts into orange and red and molten black, we recall that old Chinese man’s sooty words.

 

 

J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and many other magazines and journals. He teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

Abstract image of burning city courtesy Shutterstock.

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