John was a science teacher. Then he was a painkiller addict. Then the apocalypse happened. A Chemical Fire is a fast-paced novel about the end of the world seen through the eyes of one man. As his group survives this new world of Victims- zombie-like survivors with burnt skin, they learn they may have more of a connection than they ever suspected.
The debut novel from Brian Martinez, A Chemical Fire is a minimalist, noir vision of the apocalypse.
The story unfolds through the eyes of John Cotard, a science teacher who drugs his life away. After a car accident turns him onto prescription painkillers he allows first his job, then his marriage to crumble, doing nothing to stop it, lost in a haze of chemicals.
Then, one night, the world ends.
When a great fire sweeps through the land, wiping out most humans and leaving behind a scattering of zombie-like burn victims, he carries on, breaking into houses to steal drugs and hide away. For John the end of the world actually seems to make sense- it's the next logical step in his self-destruction.
One-by-one he meets the few remaining survivors including a woman starving herself thin, a combat-obsessed survivalist and a dangerous face from the past he hoped to never see again. As the group travels across the country to seek safety, they face not only the dangers of the dead world around them but of each other, discovering the strange connections they share along the way.
Chapter 1: Skin, Snow, Stillborns
A guy named Janet sells to me, pills mostly with a few things mixed in. Wrapping, he calls it. I don’t know the story behind Janet’s name because I won’t ask. It could be sensitive for him and it could make him angry, but I don’t care if his feelings get hurt, I care if I can get what I get. If there were a rulebook for the empty-eyed, the first line would read: Don’t piss off your dealer.
Janet keeps the air-conditioning going in his car year round, he says to keep things fresh but I’m not sure it’s the drugs he means. So all year, it’s the stale, frigid air. It’s fine in the summer but now it makes my muscles pull tight and shake, chopping my words to pieces.
He says, “So you’re getting it, right? Tell me you get it and you’re getting this. I don’t get you if you don’t get this.”
My teeth won’t relax, my skin is dead chicken. The cold doesn’t affect Janet though, neither does dealing in daylight: cars passing, kids running around in the snow when they should be running away. They should get far away because we’re not good in here. You can’t be good in a car with all this inside.
“I don’t know,” I say and crack my knuckles, the pop so loud it hurts. “It’s a jump. Something I told myself I’d never go to.” A kid on his lawn, bundled in layers and mittens, takes a plastic bat to his sister’s head. She goes down to the snow, he runs.
I look at the briefcase on the seat behind us, the brown case with cracks at the edges, splotched with old sticker-glue collecting hair and dust. It’s not where his stuff is- that’s in a fake panel cut into the floor. The case, Janet tells me, has a baby in it.
“I bought it off some rag woman,” he says. The baby: stillborn. The mother, scared worse than anything she hid in the old building and pushed and cried and pushed and slipped on sweat and fluids, pushed and did it, proud she’d needed no-one’s help. But then it was too quiet for someone’s birthday so she cried, enough for the two of them. She got up, wrapped him up nice and carried him around in a suitcase. In private places she talked to him and tucked him in, whispering into his shrinking eardrums. Two years later, she met Janet. She was crying when she told him the baby’s name was Casey. He laughed at her. He's still laughing.
“You get it, right? …Casey?”
This is the kind of conversation dealers manage to pull you into. It's never enough to engage in a straight-forward transaction. You have to get filthy in the process.
“I’ve never regretted meeting you,” I say, facing away, rubbing blood into my legs, thinking he's not listening.
His eyes move to the rear-view.
“What’s that supposed to mean? You saying I’m fucked up?”
Pull it back or lose him. Patch it up because no one else has anything until Monday, if that.
He says, “What are we talking about here, mother fucker? Who are you right now? Who's sitting in my car?”
Just fix it.
I breathe heavy, exhaustion thick on my eyes. “I’m just a man, Janet, a man enjoying the company of his pharmacist. You’re right, that’s some funny shit.”
Janet leans back, smelling the ass-end of a rolled cigarette. “Damn right, I thought you’d appreciate that. Knowing your money isn’t being pissed away, that it’s going somewhere.”
I pause. “My money bought a suitcase baby.”
“So are you getting the other thing?”
I grab the old can of soda from his cup holder and use it to swig down six pills. My last six.
“Why don’t you take seven,” he asks, running his tongue along the thin, brown paper to make sure the seal is good.
“Don’t have seven.”
“You want to but you’ll get sick.”
The little girl is pouting in the snow, looking small and broken, wondering where her brother went.
“You hit that wall,” he says.
“Not H, it’s not me.”
He lights his homemade cigarette while sucking in, the brown paper burning and the embers glowing. There's something inside lacing the nicotine. He breathes in chunks of smoke and studies me.
“That’s what I like about you. You crack me right up, man, you kill me. Look at you, thinking you’re still somebody, holding your nose up as you crawl into it. This from the guy who picked pills out of his own puke in my toilet.”
I sit up, ready to leave. He still has the pills though, and whatever he’s smoking is turning the volume up, filling the car with a bitter taste. There's nothing he loves more than this. Waving his power in my face. The only power he's ever had. This is why you don't give power to guys like Janet.
“So you say you won’t do the H? Of course you will. You’ve done everything short of it so you’re doing it.” As he talks his hands do something only he understands, the air shifting in his favor. “What’s the point of driving to the beach if you don’t get naked. Am I right? Fuck it, you’re doing the heroin. I’ve been training you for this.”
My mouth betrays me.
“You think that’s funny? Look at you, John. Know what I see? A man who's doing laps.” He looks me dead in the eyes, pupils serious and vibrating. “Like always I have to lay it out for you. Your pills are swimmers, understand, your veins are lanes. They’re tracks. Are they lying when they call them fucking track marks, John?”
I want to tell him what rehab was like. Telling your story to a group of people still lost in one of their own. Instead I say no.
“So listen to me, listen like skin. I’ve known you for two years, dealing you this and keeping you on this program, and you stuck to it the best you could. You did. But this is the next step right here. So I’m here and you’re here and the heroin is here, right, and so here we all are and this kind is one-eighty.”
I look away from him, at the neighborhood and the snow and the kids. At everything not him, and not me either. “So I can’t get the pills,” I say.
“Take off your sandals, John.”
I’m ready to get out of this car, one-eighty it is. I don’t know which I say- either one leads to the same place.