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Protest Seen

It wasn’t my fault. I was just minding my own business when it happened.

I mean, really minding my own business. I was just walking along, weaving in and out of the foot traffic downtown. The music on my iPhone was on ‘shuffle’ and my earbuds were in. I was pounding the pavement in time with the tunes. The volume was cranked and the only thing permeating my mind through the beat was that Jimmy and Trish were having a party that night and that I should text Robin and see if she was up for it.

I turned the corner across from some big, bland government building. I don’t even remember which one. It had a spacious plaza in front of it and a few flagpoles with big flags just hangin’ there limp. There wasn’t any breeze, but the sky between the buildings was blue and the temperature cool and crisp.

That’s when I noticed the smell, like someone grilling bratwurst on a barbecue, but they used too much lighter fluid and you can smell the fuel mixed with the scent of the burning meat. A thin, black smoke wafted past the limp flags and I followed it down to the scene on the plaza.

There was a line of individuals, all guys, I think, in an arc across the plaza, spaced about six feet apart from one another. The guys on the left were still standing or just sitting down. They had homemade protest signs on sticks like the ones you get at the hardware store to make signs for your garage sale. The signs I could see said “Hell, No!” and “It’s Time for a Change,” and stuff like that. The protesters weren’t chanting slogans or nothin’, just peaceably setting down their signs and sitting down on the cold stone of the plaza.

The guys in the middle were already sitting cross-legged, like they were doin’ yoga at the Athletic Club in an effort to pick up chicks or something. They just stared ahead, like they were waiting on something. They weren’t even chatting with each other.

The ones on the right … well, that’s the disgusting part. One of the guys, he looks over to his left, my right, and the guy next to him hands him a big can labeled “Gasoline.” He takes it, nodding a silent thanks, and begins to splash some on himself. Meanwhile, the guy next to him, the one he had gotten the can from, had apparently done the same thing, ‘cause he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Bic lighter and flicks it and, like, whoosh, he just goes up in a big flame.

The thing is, he doesn’t scream and holler or stagger about like Frankenstein like the special effects guys do in the movies. He just sits there and takes it.

And that’s when I notice that the guy on the other side of him must’ve torched himself the same way just a few minutes before, and the guy next to him a few minutes before that, and on down the line. Some of the bodies are still burning, with black smoke curling around the meat as it sizzles in the flame. But the ones near the end of the line are just smoldering now. The first one is just a pile of ash and bones.

And all around, people are just going about their business—chatting with their companions, texting, or scrolling through Facebook memes and YouTube videos on their cell phones while they hurry off to wherever they’re going, or whatever. Nobody’s paying attention.

So I run up to one of the guys who’s just beginning to sit down. I pull my ear buds out and get right in his face.

“What the hell are you doing?” I shout. I wanted to give him a shove, but I didn’t.

He just kind of looks up at me all zen-like. “Killing myself to make a point, obviously,” he says with a kind of wry little smile that would look like a smirk if he was being more of a jerk.

I just mutter “No!” back at him.

He shrugs and looks to either side. “What else could I possibly be doing?”

I don’t know what to say, how to react, so I just blurt out: “Will it work?”

He considers my question for a moment, looking up and to the right like you do when you can’t think of the answer on a pop quiz. Finally, he answers. “Yes,” he says placidly. Then he hesitates and says, “No,” hesitates again and shrugs his shoulders again and says “Maybe.”

Just then there is another whoosh and a ball of flame from a couple guys down. I can feel the heat on my face and I can hear the crackling of the flames, but it doesn’t faze the guy I’m talking to. Not even when the guy on fire lets out kind of a muffled scream and falls over to one side.

I don’t know what to say, but I want to talk at least one guy, my guy, out of it, and the crazy logic of the whole thing bothers me, so I say: “What if it doesn’t work? You’ll die for nothing. It might not work.”

He just smiles at me and sits down. “I’ll never know either way, now, will I?”

Like that’s somehow supposed to be reassuring to him or me.

The guy next to him hands him the big can of gasoline. It’s only about half full and sloshes around in the can, making it awkward to handle. But he just steadies it with his other hand and says “Thanks,” to the guy who leaned over to hand it to him.

“You’re welcome,” says the other guy, who’s squinting ‘cause he got gasoline running down his forehead into his eyes. Then he flicks his Bic and I flinch back as he goes up in a fireball.

I’m looking at the torched guy in horror, but, when I glance over at the guy I’m talking with, he’s not even paying attention.

“Look at him,” I yell, and my guy just turns and gives Flame Boy an unconcerned glance.

I don’t know if it was the smell or that look of academic detachment, but I totally lose it and start to gag. I turn away from the toasty protester and hurl in the curb. Pretty disgusting. My guy, he just seems to wait for me to stop retching before he starts to douse himself with gasoline.

I’m pissed now, so I yell at him. “It’s that simple? That black and white? There’s no common ground? No point in discussing things? No possibility of compromise?”

He wrinkles his brow a little. I was thinkin’ then that it’s maybe because I’m challenging his thought process, but now I guess it was probably just my breath, ‘cause he just nods and says, “There’s no point arguing with some people.” He finishes dousing himself with gasoline and hands off the can to the next guy with a nod, then turns back to me.

“Excuse me,” he says all polite. “I should be getting on with this.”

I look about like a crazy man to see if there’s anybody who can help me with this guy. But, all around, people are just going about their lives without paying attention to anything outside of their own little bubble. Being part of the world around them without really participating in it.

In desperation, I hold up a finger motioning for my guy to wait just a minute and I grab this pudgy, middle-aged woman that’s going by and forcibly turn her to look at my guy. It’s a stupid thing to do, especially these days, but I don’t really have a lot of options … and even less time. Fortunately, the woman is surprised, but she doesn’t scream or anything, and I just push her face where I want her to look with one hand and I gesture at the whole bizarre scene with the other.

“Just tell me,” I beg her, my voice cracking a bit into a higher pitch than usual. “Tell me what you think of this.”

She’s nervous now, shaking as she tries to talk, but I don’t know if it’s from what she’s seen or because she thinks I’m a maniac. Finally, she squawks, “I d-don’t know what t-t-to say.”

I grab her by her shoulders with both hands and bellow directly in her face. “What’s your opinion?” My barf-breath causes her to wince.

“M-m-my opinion?” she answers, her eyes wide.

“Yes, your opinion. You must have an opinion. Everyone has an opinion, even when they don’t speak out.”

“I d-don’t know,” she squeaks.

“Try!” I yell, shaking her a bit. “Things are happening, not just in the world, but right next to you. What do you think of all this?”

She apparently screws up her courage and looks around at the whole scene. Her breath slows and she seems to calm down. She looks down at my guy, all soaked in gasoline, with a Bic lighter in his hand and then, finally, looks back to me.

She reaches up and removes my hands from her shoulders, straightens her outfit, and looks me straight in the eye. “I’ll tell you one thing. I never pay attention to people seeking attention.”

“But, why?” I wail in anguish as she begins to turn away.

“It only encourages them.”

I shake my head, unable to respond.

She shrugs. “It’s just an opinion.” Then she turns completely and goes on her way without looking back.

I look at my guy and he has the lighter up, ready to torch himself. I start to move toward him, but he calmly says, “Please, stand back.”

I shuffle back, tears falling from my eyes. I’m at a loss. “Why?” I croak, “Why?”

“Because,” he says, “It’s always dangerous to associate too closely with principled people.”

A flicker of movement from his right hand was all it took for the gasoline vapor to ignite. The fireball assaulted my senses, permeated my soul, dried my tears, and singed my eyelashes. I staggered backward, slipping on my vomit at the curb, almost lurching uncontrolled into the street, drawing a horn blast and a middle finger from a passing car.

The arc of protest continued, but no one paid it any mind. They simply skirted around the smoldering piles of human meat and waved the greasy smoke away as they passed by, on their way no doubt to important destinations, just living their lives.

I turned away and began to go back to my own life. I looked down at my feet as I walked, unwilling to witness anything more, whether it be the protest scene or the blank faces about me. My earbuds dangled out of my pocket and skittered along the pavement behind me, but I didn’t bother to reel them in.

“It’s always dangerous to associate too closely with principled people,” my guy had said.

It was hard to argue with that without getting burned.

I came home and ate ice cream straight out of the carton ‘til I fell asleep.

So, anyhow, that’s why I wasn’t at the party. Did I miss anything good?

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Contemporary Fiction, Culture and Current Events, Drama, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Horror, Humor