Ellie looked at the ceiling. “Light’s on,” she said. “Ingestion, Propulsion, Secretion.”
“Your lamp’s off.” Darla pointed to the darkened shade above a hollow ceramic base.
“Yeah. It’s my grandfather’s birthday. Mechanical and chemical digestion.” Ellie drummed her fingers.
“I thought your grandfather was dead.” Darla fished in her own desk and produced a text identical to the one Ellie was studying. “Here’s to a new way of life.” Darla thumped down her own book and reached for Ellie’s switch.
“Don’t!” A blue jolt of electricity zapped Darla’s still damp fingers, and the bulb exploded in a spray of glass. “Damn it, I told you not to do that. Now there’s blood. Help me clean it!” Ellie jumped up, holding her hand. She pulled glass out of her palm. Darla seized tissues from the box balanced between their desks and handed them across.
Ellie chanted, “Apply pressure, apply pressure, apply pressure,” as she clamped down on the wound.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize the lamp had a short!”
“It doesn’t.” Ellie looked under her Kleenex Compress, and when blood welled up, she pressed it back down again.
“Well of course it does.” Darla held out her slightly reddened fingers by way of evidence. “That’s why they zorch people like that.”
“Darla, would you listen to me? That’s my grandfather’s lamp. He had a magic spell for everything, and it sat on his work table for years. The damned thing is possessed.” Ellie shook her head, and a flutter of glass tumbled to the tile.
“But it’s worked fine all semester.” Darla went for the dustpan and hand broom her mother had tucked into her closet when the girls moved in together back in August.
“I told you. It’s his birthday. I need to borrow a bandage.”
“Ellie, you’re starting to worry me.”
“I’m starting to worry you?”
“Why else would it shock someone? It has to have a short.”
“For fun. Because that was the kind of thing my grandfather would have liked.”
Darla turned from the closet and looked into Ellie’s eyes. “Say what?”
“As long as we leave it alone, everything will be fine tomorrow.” Ellie took the tissue from her hand and threw it away, even though she kept bleeding. Then she got Darla’s first aid kit.
Darla studied the lamp without touching it. “At least it’s not plugged in anymore.”
“I did that last night.” Ellie rummaged until she found a flexible adhesive bandage. She peeled it open.
Darla looked back and forth from Ellie to the lamp. “So if it is possessed,” she said slowly, “then why did you bring it with you?”
“Not all of us have rich parents to buy everything.”
Darla looked from her roommate to the closets. Ellie’s possessions filled only a few hangers. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, I am.” Ellie covered her wound. “I take it back. It was an awful thing to say. You’ve always shared with me.”
“I’m so sorry,” Darla repeated. “I never noticed. But Ellie, you can’t keep a lamp with a short in the cord. It shouldn’t hold a charge overnight. My Dad is an electrician. I can show you how to rewire it for cheap. We’ll have you fixed up by tomorrow.” She reached for the lamp.
“Don’t touch it!”
Darla lifted the ceramic base. “There,” she said. “You see?”
The lamp shattered in her hands. Shards and gray dust scattered at her feet. Her hands didn’t bleed, but Ellie’s did, in a dozen more places.
Ellie recoiled staring at her hands and then Darla’s legs. “Oh God, it’s his cremains!”
“First blood,” Ellie said. She dashed to the anatomy textbook as if that might hold answers. I lost first blood, so I bleed and you…”
“It itches. It itches. Oh God, it burns!”
“I never knew. I would have done without!” Ellie threw down the book on top of the lamp’s dust. She seized Darla’s arm and ran her out into the hall, leaving a spattered trail. “Water. We have to get you to the bathroom.”
“What’s happening to me?” Darla’s robe was starting to smolder.
“Fire. My grandfather got bit by the firebug.” Ellie seized Darla’s waist tie and pulled it off. When Darla understood, she struggled out of the robe altogether. Her skin underneath was as red as a sunburn.
Ellie yanked the alarm and shouted, “Run! Fire!” into the corridor.
She herded Darla into the shower turned on the nozzle, then and crowded into the stall with her, trying to splash her roommate’s whole body everywhere at once. Her own hundred small cuts turned the water instantly red.
The pealing fire alarm echoed around them for several minutes. Darla struggled, but Ellie held her under the spray until the building’s sprinklers kicked on. “Go,” Darla gasped. “We… we have to go. I’m not on fire anymore.”
They staggered into the corridor and ran for the stairs. Black smoke billowed out of their room. As they dashed past, a pillar of flame shot out and chased them. They raced into the fire escape and slammed the door. Seconds later, it rattled on its hinges as the fire struck it with a solid weight. They bolted down the stairs and out onto the lawn, where hoses spewed foam at the dorm.
“She’s naked!” Someone threw a shirt to Darla. She winced putting her arms through the sleeves.
“What happened to you?” A man pointed to Ellie, whose soaking clothes were streaked with blood.
ENTs descended on Darla and Ellie as a roaring cry arose from the building. All along the second floor, windows exploded. “Ma’am, you’re bleeding.”
“Do you hear him?”
“He’s never going to leave. They’ll never get the ashes and teeth out.”
“Ma’am, do you feel faint? You should sit down and put your head between your knees.”
Ellie sat. She drew up her legs. She lowered her face to her knees and began to rock. Then she whispered, “Absorption, Defecation,” into the hollow space between her legs and the ground.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.