A voracious burst of fire, threads of yellow flame writhing, grasping at any living flesh, an intense blue heat engulfing him, Nik slowly drifts away from the flames, away from the flames awaiting his breath. As his eyes gently part, he can still see wisps of flames dancing around him. As his hand moves across his face, ashes fall from his desiccated skin.
— “You’re awake,” says the woman standing above him.
— “Yeah mom. I think my fever is getting worse.”
She gently places her hand against his forehead. Weeping, softly, she gives him another dose of vancomycin. Thrashing in his sheets, he slowly drifts off, back to the flames. Back the flames, awaiting his breath.
The angry sun scoured the Earth that day. Perhaps more akin to harsh August day, this year had instead produced a hot spring. As Nik drove to school, he leered at the thermometer: there were more digits than he cared for. Fortunately, the air conditioning worked today, but as soon as Nik stepped into the school, he felt little relief.
— “Hey, are you still cranking on thermo?”
— “Yeah I don’t understand entropy”
Lynn had an uncanny knack for physics, that Nik seemed to lack. As the two friends walked to class, the stifling heat slowed Nik’s languid walk to a mere daydream. Nik could see himself in Kīlauea; he and his family, along with Lynn and her family, would vacation there for the better part of the summer. Keen on seeing the heady volcanic flows, Nik would also visit Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, with the bright, vibrant lava spewing around him. He saw himself playing in the clear waters, laughing and swimming and sunbathing and hiking and walking with Lynn, especially walking with Lynn. Inevitably, he was startled away from his musings when he tripped over the radiator.
— “Are you okay?”
— “Fuck yeah I’m okay”
— “Nik! Watch your mouth”
Nik ducked into his physics class to avoid further rebukes on his damned language.
The flight seemed to have taken forever. But finally, they arrived without much trouble, and after picking up their fourteen suitcases (Why did we pack so much!), the two families walked to their hotel. After briefly freshening up, the two families went around, lazily strolling along the streets.
— “Oh! What a beautiful necklace!,” exclaimed Nik’s father
A dark obsidian pendant hung as the centerpiece on a gold weave chain. The highly polished rock reflected a brilliant white light from the high noon sun overhead. Without hesitation, he handed over some cash, and grasped the rock, draping it gently over his neck.
— “Besides our girls, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life!”
Nik reflexively let out a small chuckle. Lynn looked at him, coy, silent.
It was the third day of their trip, and Nik was excited to return to the breathtaking beaches. His dad insisted that he lather gallons (okay, maybe a few tablespoons) of sunscreen across his already reddened skin. Nik’s paternal grandparents had both died of skin cancer; they had been archaeologists in New Mexico. And ever since, Nik’s dad had been paranoid, swathing his family in fresh sunscreen every few hours.
Nik ran out to the golden beaches, and quickly caught up to Lynn, who had been sunbathing for the past half an hour.
— “Let’s go”
They set off exploring the beautiful island around them. They scampered through each rocky crevice, peppery beach, inlet, and brush they could find. Gently picking up kitsch from each location, Nik and Lynn eventually traipsed back with a heavy parcel of memories.
As they came back to the hotel, they found Nik’s dad weeping over a glittering black stone with a jagged gash through it. A few chips of the obsidian necklace fell to the sand.
Nik wakes to a dark, infected, pus-filled wound on his leg. His mom screams in horror at the sight of the diseased appendage. As quick as they can, Nik’s parents bring him to Columbia Presbyterian, all the way in Washington Heights, where Dr. Gupta calmly dresses the wound and prescribes some antibiotics.
— “This’s serious. If it becomes worse, or the tissue becomes necrotic, call me immediately.”
The inferno claws at Nik like a rabid animal … an enraged ember jumps from the earth and nestles itself into his body, slowly consuming him … a molten spurt of liquid iron jumps across his figure, melting his face like a wax sculpture. Nik agitates, rocking back and forth, violently as he strains against the flames, the flames awaiting his breath.
— “More bad dreams? Your fever won’t go down.”
She continues to cry as she stares at the bandaged stump.
— “It’s not so bad! And, I’m never going to be able to come again!” pled Nik to his mother.
She capitulated. And, with that, the two families finished their packing for the day. They were going to venture to Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō. After a long car ride, they reached the beginning of the trail.
The trek was to take all day, but it would be worth it. Signs posted along the track warned of active lava flows, but these were slow, gentle, avoidable. As they trekked farther and farther up, Nik would thirstily grab his water bottle and relieve his dry mouth. After only a few minutes, Nik was drenched in his own thick perspiration; the sun was relentless. Finally, after hours, they reached the very top.
No one could make a sound as they took in the glory of the writhing black and silver flows in front of them. The magnificent landscape, with its subtle orange glow, enraptured the six explorers. Slowly, they turned, trying to take in every view they could handle; they were starved adventurers set next to a resplendent feast. And suddenly, a voracious roar came from behind them. The volcanic mouth sent a great bellow through the island.
This activity, at least according to the locals, was completely normal. Nik was captivated, and with a deft, rash leap, he leaped over the high railing and ran toward the gaping, cavernous gorge in the center.
— “Nik!” exclaimed Lynn.
But Nik disregarded all warnings and proceeded to step to the rim, and peered below. The sheer enormity of the flow frightened him, sending tremors across his body. He could see himself falling across the sea of lava and plunging to the depths of the hot liquid. The twisted, knotty flows, bursting from gelatinous orange center were calling to him, awaiting his breath.
Suddenly, he was falling into its depths, hot air rushing by his face. The wind ripped across his body, the glorious red light surrounded his corpse, and the magnificent roar reverberated around him. He felt euphoric! He saw himself falling down, down, down into the hearth: a pit of boisterous magma. He was here, finally, keeping the Earth too long. It had been waiting, awaiting his breath. The viscous fluid swaddled him, incinerating his fear. Nik couldn’t stop laughing. Back to the flames, back to the flames awaiting his breath. How he loved the heat!