Sometime between getting out of bed and making coffee, Cleo’s brain started to overheat. First there was the sound of a high whistle, which could have been the tea kettle in the next apartment. Then it was unbearably hot in the kitchen, worse than in the Bikram studio. She grabbed her coffee, opened a window, and went into the living room, where Cassie was reading the Sunday Times. This was their most treasured time; there was still an hour and a half before they’d have to make up their minds about the ten o’clock rappelling class at the climbing gym. But after a few uneasy minutes, during which no one had bothered to shut off the whistling kettle, Cleo’s eyelids started to droop, and steam rose from her slick black hair.
“Oww,” she said. “My head.” Cassie’s eyes were glued to the front page of the Business section. Cleo dropped the book reviews onto the coffee table.
“Your head always hurts when you read the book reviews. What is it this time? Historical fiction disguised as a presidential autobiography?”
“Another book about Freud’s influence on the size and shape of baguettes.”
“Ohh,” Cassie replied. She looked up finally and caught sight of her girlfriend’s smoking scalp. She thought about saying something, but Cleo didn’t like it when she pointed out things that could be construed as flaws.
They continued reading. Cleo’s face sizzled with sweat, the beads popping off her skin like grease in a pan, and at one point she started to moan. Cassie sighed. Was Cleo really doing this right now? Why didn’t she just go lie down? Unable to focus on the latest mortgage banking scandal, she skipped ahead to the Markets Overview and ran her cold foot over Cleo’s damp, stubbly shin. She wasn’t sure what to do or say, so she waited. Outside, an enormous, dark cloud moved over the sun.
“Are you okay?” Cassie asked finally, scrutinizing her reddening girlfriend. Pretty tendrils of smoke drifted from Cleo’s finely drawn nostrils.
“What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes round and globby.
“Nothing. Just asking.”
They went back to reading. Smoke swirled beneath the light fixture. The couch was getting really warm, and Cassie moved a few inches away from Cleo, whose hands were shaking so badly she could hardly hold up the Week in Review. Vladimir Putin did a little scowly dance as the corner of the paper dipped into Cleo’s coffee cup, which was still full to the brim. She kept the paper aloft, even though her eyes were closed. Steam escaped her parted lips.
“How’s the article?” Cassie asked.
“The one you’ve been reading?”
“I’ve just been holding it here.”
“I don’t really know.”
A dog barked outside, which made their dog, Henry, bark, and then a few other neighborhood mutts joined in the ruckus. Cleo, who usually yelled at Henry to shut up, rolled up in a ball on the couch and covered herself with newspaper. The cloud blocking the sun moved on, and then another bigger, darker one came.
Cassie went into the kitchen to get Cleo some water. When she came back, she tried to tilt the water into her mouth, but it kept spilling all over the sofa and creating more steam. When Cleo sat up, there was a circular burn mark on the plush cushion. The living room smelled like the scene of a car crash. Cassie felt Cleo’s head, and it was like touching a light bulb that had been on for a while. She put the air conditioner on, even though it was January, and Cleo sipped the water and sighed.
“We’ve got to get you to the doctor, I think,” Cassie said, aware that Cleo hated doctors almost as much as she hated shrinks. “I think maybe you have a fever.”
“No way. Too expensive.”
“We’ll go to county.”
“And wait fifty years to see someone who’s just going to give me aspirin anyway?”
Cleo lay back down, and Cassie flinched, because the sofa had been really expensive at Ikea, and they’d only bought it a few months ago on credit.
They decided to skip the climbing gym and instead flipped on the TV. As they waited for whatever was about to be on, they half-watched commercials announcing the arrivals of several FDA-approved medications with ridiculous sounding names, like Astroglucon and Xaniplenda, all of which treated “minor discomforts” and listed side effects such as uncontrollable vomiting, foaming at the mouth, and semi-permanent loss of eyesight.
Cleo belched white ash all over the throw blanket and moaned. Her neck seized, and now she lay with her shoulders pressed to her ears. “I bet all that shit’s in the water by now,” she said, staring at the screen. “All those medications that cause loose stools and vertigo.”
The commercials ended and the Sunday morning bald guy, they could never remember his name, was introducing his next guest, Hillary Clinton. Cassie enjoyed left-leaning political rhetoric as much as any liberal San Franciscan, and although she hadn’t rooted for her in 2008, she was thrilled at the prospect of a Hillary 2016 bumper sticker to put over the old one. But wait, who was this guy? The bald guy was interviewing a spokesman for Hillary Clinton. It was not a good day for the network. Just as the spokesman was unveiling Clinton’s game plan for remaining out of the public eye until she decided whether or not to run, Cassie picked up the remote. “Lame.”
Cleo reached over and grabbed her wrist. “Wait. Wait.”
“I want to see this.”
Cassie put the remote down and let Cleo watch the rest of the interview. She still simmered, but now with interest, nodding and hmming to herself.
“You know,” Cleo said during the commercial break, “I used to think about going to law school. Doing some high-profile stuff and then running for congress. Then becoming president. And from that position of power, just getting all the people together, you know, rallying them, to abolish government altogether.”
“Like, staging a revolution from the inside? Hmm. I didn’t know you ever wanted to do stuff like that.”
Cleo was a yoga instructor. She had majored in Performing Arts in college.
Cassie turned back to the screen, trying to figure out what the bald guy and the Clinton spokesman were saying that suddenly made so much sense to her girlfriend of two years, who had never before had any interest in participating in, much less overthrowing, government. But now a happy couple frolicked through a field of daisies, no longer dealing with the discomfort and embarrassment of halitosis.
“It’s like, be the change you want to see,” Cleo was saying, “and stupid us, we all thought we could just vote for this youngish, handsome black guy and something different would happen. And maybe now I’m starting to see through all that. I mean, why even vote? Everything’s broken.”
“I suppose. Yeah.”
“And stuff like yoga and dance, all of that just feeds complacency,” Cleo went on, her eyes widening. “Like here, here’s a little bit of relaxation, a way to be in your body rather than in your head, because when you actually bother to think, you can see everything’s fucked up. Right now, in child’s pose, you don’t have to think about it. Just breathe in, breathe out.” Cleo waved her hands in the air, a spasmodic, semi-conscious symphony conductor, and a little flame burst out of one of her eyelashes. It fizzled out before it reached the follicle.
“People don’t want to think about that stuff all the time,” Cassie pointed out. “They’d go crazy.”
“They should go crazy.”
“Okay,” Cassie said, shrugging. “But I think maybe your brain’s shorting out.”
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t mean it like that. I mean, I think your brain is actually going through some sort of chemical reaction. I mean, look.” Cassie pointed to the dense cloud overhead.
“Is that why it’s so hot in here?” Cleo asked, looking alarmed.
“That’s my guess.”
“Have you turned on the dehumidifier?”
“If you’d just let me take you to the doctor.”
Cleo grabbed bits and pieces of different newspaper sections and resumed covering herself with them. They billowed and smoked but did not catch fire.
Cassie reached over Cleo’s head and wrenched open the paint-stuck window, and when she sat down again, the front of her sweatshirt was charred. The fibers were black and crispy, and slightly sticky. Some of Cleo’s hair was attached.
“That’s it,” Cassie said, standing. “If you won’t let me take you to urgent care, I’m calling my brother.”
Jordan arrived ten minutes later in full volunteer fireman regalia. “Who Kentucky fried a corpse in here?” he said, grimacing through the mask. He didn’t say it in front of Cleo, for which Cassie was grateful.
“She’s in there,” Cassie said, pointing. “I’m worried about her. She said she wanted to go to law school, and be president?”
“Wow. Cleo did? Shit. When did this start?”
“An hour ago? I don’t know.”
“Jesus,” he said, peering into the living room. “Her head looks like a baked potato.”
Cassie stared out the kitchen window. She was trying hard not to cry. “Well, can you do anything? I mean, it’s probably just the flu, but…”
Jordan leaned against the table and scratched his chin. “Could be. There’s a gnarly one going around.”
“I’ve never seen one quite like this,” she said, weaving her fingers together.
“Have you tried holding her head underwater?” Jordan asked.
“Okay, go fill the tub. Then come back and help me get her in there.”
The rain pounded on the clogged gutters, and the stray tabby cat howled beneath the back porch.
“I’m trusting you,” Cassie said, eyeing him.
Cleo was humming when Cassie walked by. Her eyes were closed again, and she looked peaceful. The cushion beneath her head was scorched to the seams.
When the tub was finally full, Jordan cinched his arm around Cleo’s waist, and Cassie took Cleo’s arm and put it over her shoulder. As they carried her, her head bobbed on her neck like a buoy lost at sea. She was humming the tune of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” It was more depressing than anything Cassie could imagine.
“You know, I think I’ve seen this once before,” Jordan said as they lowered her onto the bathmat.
“Yeah? What was the deal?”
“Well, I hate to say this, but—” he turned away from Cleo and whispered, “spontaneous combustion. It’s a real thing, you know. But the good news is a lot of times the person doesn’t actually explode.”
“What’s it caused by?” Cassie asked, intrigued.
“Stress, for one.”
“Cleo is always under a lot of stress at work.”
“Isn’t she a yoga instructor?”
Cassie shrugged. “What else causes it?”
Jordan thought for a second. “Diet,” he added.
“She has been eating a lot of tuna lately.”
“And, um, lack of something.” He snapped his fingers. “Some vitamin. B? D?”
“Hmm. I’ll have to look into that,” Cassie mumbled.
When they peered into the still water, their reflections were so similar it startled them. Curly black hair and dark eyes from their mother, strong chins from their father, big pores from Grandma. Their foreheads large, wondering.
They lifted Cleo by the armpits and positioned her over the rim of the tub. Jordan counted to three, and they pushed her burning head down into the cold water. She didn’t struggle. A few seconds passed, and then huge bubbles rose to the surface. Cassie could feel blisters forming on her palms where they came in contact with her girlfriend’s scalp. The cold water turned lukewarm, then hot. In seconds, the bathroom was a wet sauna, not unlike the one at the climbing gym.
Once the bubbles started to diminish, they let Cleo up. Strands of black hair stuck to her face. Cassie ran to the sink and poured cold water on her hands. Jordan thanked God for his fire hose calluses.
“Shit,” Cleo said, blinking. “I just had the craziest dream.”
They couldn’t tell if her head was still smoking, what with all the steam, so they carried Cleo into the hallway and set her down in the faux-leather armchair. For a while, she was still red and baked-looking, but the smoke was gone. Cassie patted her brother on the back, but Jordan wasn’t convinced.
“What’s four times four?” he asked her.
Cleo shook her head as if to clear it and grabbed the arms of the chair. “What?”
Cassie clapped her hands.
Later that night, after they treated Jordan to a home-cooked vegetarian meal, Cleo took some muscle relaxers and fell asleep almost instantly. Cassie treasured the whinnying sound that came out when her girlfriend exhaled. Her head was still a little deflated-looking, but she was sure it would fill back out after a good night’s sleep. The pillow beneath her remained cool and clean.
In the semi-darkness, Cleo didn’t stir, not even when the fire engine sirens blared outside. Cassie wiped sweat from her brow and felt heat radiate through her own body. She sat watching her girlfriend’s chest rise and fall as blue and red lights flashed wildly behind the still, white curtain.
our short film, Combustion
the generation of literature