By Charles Payseur
Grant’s wrist collided with the side of the doorframe and he bit back a curse. The muscles in his arms were already burning from carrying the damn chest up from the basement, and he took a ragged breath as he turned and managed to waddle out sideways. Digger and Raptor darted out after, nearly tripping him. The outside achieved, Grant set the chest down on the front stoop with a grunt and stretched his aching back.
“You should just let me help,” Vel said from the doorway, a much smaller box in eir hands. Grant sighed, glanced at the still-considerable walk out to the ring, at Digger and Raptor who looked eager to try and run between legs, to get in the way at just the wrong time. He nodded. Vel stepped forward, closed the door behind em, and took a position at one side of the chest.
“Buck up, tough guy,” ey said, and dropped eir own box on top of the chest. Ey bent at the knees to grab eir end. “I’ll still let you walk backwards.”
Grant made no argument as he faced Vel from his side of the chest. They lifted as one and set out, their booted feet sloshing through the wet snow. Neither of them were wearing coats, just flannel over tee shirts and jeans. The weather finally seemed to be crawling free of winter, and though the forecast was for a severe snowstorm in two days, at the moment it was fifty degrees and the sky was a clear blue. The world was like a snow globe left out from Christmas, forgotten on some mantle until the spring made it stick out like a thorn. Calm until the act of putting it away stirred up one last frenzy of white.
They put the chest down on the neat pile of split logs and kindling they’d made earlier. A can of gasoline, glaring red, was a squat reminder of the occasion. All around them the snow was melting in slushy pools, hints of last year’s uncut grass poking through, reaching for this early taste of sun and warmth. Digger and Raptor lumbered about, clumsy with winter fat.
“You ready?” Vel asked, and in answer Grant handed em the gas.
Think of it like spring cleaning. A cleansing. Burning Day, a chance to clear away the past, the cold, to revel in a bit of fire. Winter might throw its last tantrum against the march of seasons but now at least now there was a promise it would end. Grant always thought it made no sense for the year to begin in January, in the deep of winter, when it seemed that spring might never arrive, that things would just go on being cold and cold forever.
Digger and Raptor barely struggled as Grant herded them onto the woodpile. They whined and they begged, but Grant ignored it, shoved them into place. Digger looked up at him, a hundred squinting eyes staring up from an inky face, its body a mess of hooks and spades. It looked like the shed where his father kept fishing poles and garden equipment, broken flower pots and vodka bottles. Grant was careful not to snag his flannel on the hooks as he made Digger sit and stay. Raptor was more difficult, as big as a Saint Bernard, with a reptilian body and a dozen limbs, each of which ended in long claws.
Once they were situated Vel doused it all with gas. The wood, the chest, the box, their wraiths. When ey was done Grant pulled out the book of matches and lighter from his pocket.
They retreated to a respectable distance, just close enough that the wraiths wouldn’t try running after them. Grant opened the book of matches and lit them all at once with the lighter, the still morning coming alive with the phosphorus hiss. For a moment his eyes met Vel’s and they shared a hesitation. Then he tossed the flaming book into the pile.
There was a gasp, like the whole world sucked in one rough breath, and then a thunderclap that rocked both of them back on their heels. It wasn’t an explosion exactly, but all at once everything was on fire, the wraiths raising their voices in a low keening call that echoed down the street. There were others starting to filter out from their homes, though not everyone participated in Burning Day. Some didn’t have much to burn, maybe just old tax documents and various receipts, the junk that accumulates through the long winter. Some didn’t even have wraiths and never did, went their whole lives without something nipping at their heels, constantly distracting them, destroying things randomly from time to time.
And even some who did have wraiths, who had all sorts of things cluttering up their homes, didn’t care to get rid of any of it. The way Grant hadn’t been able to throw out all the unread letters and unopened gifts from his parents from after he moved away, after he moved in with Vel. But their presence ate at him in the form of his wraith, the creature bulbous from his guilt and shame. He watched the chest burn, the words that his parents might have said. We’re sorry, perhaps. Or please reconsider. He’d never know now, and he could live with that. He took a deep breath.
On top of the chest the smaller box was nearly cinders. Old driver’s licenses. Old bills. The last remains of a name and lie that didn’t fit and that now, thanks to the government finally passing legislation allowing people to use nonbinary genders on federal documentation, was no longer a requirement. It didn’t fix everything, but it was a relief all the same.
Grant reached out, searching blindly for Vel’s hand with his own, but caught only air. The flames licked up into the sky like hands waving goodbye. Grant turned to see where Vel had gone, was rewarded by a cold shock to his face as a heap of snow impacted it. Stumbling back, he heard the telltale laugh, and immediately lunged toward the sound, arms outstretched. Vel ran. He chased, wiping snowmelt from his eyes. They laughed and flung snow and built tiny, doomed snowpeople that would melt by the morning.
When the fire burned itself out they gathered up ashes and some snow in a large bowl and fled inside. Along the street the day was alive with fires, a dozen private deaths and rebirths. They stripped off clothing and fell into bed, hands dipping into the bowl and then finding flesh. They drew on each other in ash. Hearts for love and daggers for love and tacos for love. They traced each other’s scars. Vel drew stitches across the lines on Grant’s thighs, and Grant made smiley faces out of the burn marks on Vel’s back. Skin prickled from the cold but it did not stop them.
They fucked. Grant moaned as he was entered, sucked the ash from Vel’s fingers until it coated his tongue. He wondered if the wraiths would be there in the morning, fresh and new again, as small as puppies. Every year, the day after Burning Day, they returned, were there at the foot of the bed when Grant opened his eyes. Returned and spent the next year feeding. Draining. Growing bigger and more cumbersome.
There were stories out there, though, of people waking up to find them gone. Their wraiths simply vanished. It didn’t seem possible, didn’t seem real, except for the hope Grant felt as he came across the ash-stained sheets. The hope that sometimes burdens eased, that weights were lifted.
They collapsed against each other, a mess of limbs and sweat and ash. They slept, and dreamed, and in the morning Grant woke, his eyes still closed. Vel’s arms wrapped around him, eir chest pressed against his back. He heard their hearts beat in call and response. And if there was a weight at the foot of the bed, in that moment Grant did not notice it.