Friday, January 20, 2012

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Most children have an irrational fear or two that plague them throughout the majority of their childhood. Some include being left and forgotten in a public place, the monster in the closet, being hit with the ball in gym class (the fear of which always seemed to be the actual cause of the collision), popping balloons, big dogs, people in giant mascot costumes, etc. Those fears, and others, follow children around for years upon years, constantly reminding them that something terrible could happen to them at any moment. 

My fear was that of spontaneous human combustion. You know, it’s the sudden bursting into flames of a human body for no apparent reason and from no apparent source. If you ask me, it’s a perfectly reasonable fear.
I was seven years old, the perfect age for an adventure into the unknown. My mother, my sister, her friend and I were visiting my mother’s friend, Dana, in North Carolina. As soon as we began to see mountains during our drive from Florida, my face was permanently pressed against the chilled backseat window. A landscape of sparkling white slowly appeared before me. Trees that should have been green took on an almost gray color with white frosting, and fields that should have been grassy appeared to resemble a page in a coloring book in which someone had simply forgotten what color crayon to apply.

It was the first time I had ever seen snow, and my level of excitement was so extreme that I didn’t care that the temperature outside was twenty-million degrees below zero. I was bundled up so tightly, I could barely put my arms at my side, and the only bit of my face you could see under the black ski mask and my geeky glasses were my eyes. After everyone had a good laugh at my appearance, thanks to my mom overdoing it, playing commenced. Dana’s backyard was the best place I had ever been. We went sledding down the street, threw snowballs, made snow angels, and shivered. We shivered a lot.

After some time we were finally cold and wet enough to go inside, though some coaxing from the grown-ups was necessary. Unfortunately, being from Florida, we were completely unequipped with the proper footwear for romping around in snow. Our feet were freezing cold, and our shoes and socks were soaking with melted slush. We hung them to dry so they would be ready again for tomorrow and proceeded to make our way to the living room by the fireplace and the television. I was in desperate need of warmth and planted myself on the sofa seat closest to the fire. It was warm and inviting, and much easier to appreciate than any fire in Florida since it’s always unnecessary.  
One of the grownups decided to watch a television show called “Fact or Fiction.” It would show some outlandish story reenacted by less-than-mediocre actors and then have the viewers guess if it was “real” or not. It was all good and fun until a story about something called Spontaneous Human Combustion. It went something like this:
There was an old woman who was taken care of by her daughter. The old woman said she wasn’t feeling well and sat down in her wooden rocking chair by her bedroom window. The daughter left, saying she would be back in a few minutes, and closed her mother’s door behind her. After fifteen minutes or so, she went back to her mother’s bedroom to find the doorknob incredibly hot to the touch. Fearing the worst, she flung the door open only to discover that everything appeared normal. However, something was wrong. Her mother was nowhere to be found. She walked over to the chair her mother had been sitting in and found nothing but a pile of ashes on the floor in front of the wooden rocking chair.
After watching the combustion segment on the show, I began to feel slightly warm. After a few minutes, “slightly warm” became “outright uncomfortable.” The program broke for commercials and promised the answer of “fact” or “fiction” upon return. I found myself praying and hoping for it to say “fiction.” What kind of strange occurrence could cause a woman to simply burst into flames without any reason? Why didn’t the old lady scream for help? What happened?

As the commercials continued to play, beads of sweat formed on my forehead and my heart rate increased dramatically. Thirty second commercials lasted longer than what was reasonably humane. Every muscle in my body was tense as I waited for the answer. Fiction, fiction, fiction…it has to be fiction, I thought. Nobody around me noticed my discomfort. My body must have been emitting steam, I thought. I was so hot.

I jumped as the last commercial ended and the program came back on. Finally, the moment I had been waiting for! I sat up, ignored my immense discomfort for a moment, and watched the television as intensely as if it held the key for life. To me, with my ever-increasing body temperature and sweaty brow, it did hold the key to life…a life devoid of people randomly bursting into flames. 

With a cheesy smile, the host said, “So is it fact, or fiction?” There was a suspenseful pause, and then...

This was the end. God was smiting me for something I'd done in my seven short years on earth. That's what happens to those-who-are-smited. right? Death by spontaneous combustion? According to the television, which was all the truth in the world to a seven year old, some old lady was sitting in a chair enjoying the scenery from her window and burst into flames. A helpless old woman became nothing but a pile of ashes.

I knew my life was about to end. I knew that I, also, would be consumed by flames by some freak act of nature. I sought out comfort from my mother.

“Mom, I’m hot” I whimpered.
She looked at me, then at the fireplace and replied, “Move away from the fire, silly.”

I moved to the other side of the couch and waited to see if it was cooler. Instead, however, as time went by I felt like I was boiling.

Desperately, I made another plea to my mother.

“Mommy, I’m still hot.”
She felt my forehead. “You’re fine. You don’t feel like you have a temperature.”

I was on the verge of tears. Hysteria was building up inside of me like gas in a shaken soda can, but I kept it bottled up. I wasn’t the type of kid to confess my worries to adults for fear of ridicule. It was serious, and I didn’t want my mom to belittle my imminent death by telling me I was overreacting. Soon, I would catch fire while sitting next to her and then she would know that something had been seriously wrong. That would show her...yeah.

Dana had heard my pitiful complaints and called me over to the kitchen. I slowly walked to her, afraid to make any sudden movements, and she stuck a thermometer under my tongue. Realizing that Dana was trying to get to the bottom of my ailment, a hope began building up inside of me. Maybe she could fix me. Maybe she could keep me from combusting!

The thermometer began signaling that it was finished and Dana announced that I had a fever. It was real after all. My hopes of help were dashed as she and my mom ushered me into the bedroom and into bed.

“You need to sleep and get better so we can go sledding tomorrow!” exclaimed my mother.

They left the room, leaving the light on as I requested (if I was going to die, it was NOT going to be in the dark), and I lay completely still, sweltering under the covers. I would not go sledding tomorrow, I knew. I would not wake up. If I was lucky, I would be asleep when it happened and wouldn’t feel any pain. My first trip into snow had turned into my worst nightmare, and it was the last one I would ever have.

Obviously, I didn't burst into flames that night. Though I feel very sheepish for admitting this, the fear of Spontaneous Human Combustion plagued my existence for YEARS. I was seriously probably 16 or 17 years old before I decided I would not randomly burst into wild flames one night.

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