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the strange tale of a fiery redemption

“People explode. One minute they may be relaxing in a chair, the next they erupt into a fireball. Jets of blue fire shoot from their bodies like flames from a blowtorch, and within half an hour they are reduced to a pile of ash.... For centuries, this gruesome way of death has been debated, with many people discounting it as a myth. But spontaneous human combustion is real....” — Brian J. Ford in New Scientist

In this psychological horror tale with a redemptive twist, veteran author D. Patrick Miller imagines what it might take to build up a fatal fire within. Terry, a lonely retiree with a lifelong feeling of not belonging in a seemingly uncaring world, tries to come out of his shell with forays into Tea Party politics and New Age spirituality. But the flames of his deep dissatisfaction with himself finally erupt in an horrific yet strangely healing climax...

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EXCERPT:

TERRY stood just beside his grimy front window, peering out sideways between the heavy cloth curtain and the deep brown, pockmarked wooden frame of eighty years vintage. His back was flattened against the wall as if to avoid incoming fire from a police assault – a dramatic, viciously loud, spine-tingling turn of events he periodically ran through in his mind and did not consider unlikely, given that he must have been under surveillance for a while. When they were not watching the house, they were sifting through his e-mails. The surveillance and the official plans being made against him did not exactly anger him, but could fill his chest with a kind of sad disgust if he thought about it too long.

His extreme-angle view was just sufficient to capture his red-haired neighbor Rose stooping in her colorful flower garden about ten yards away. She was digging patiently at something lodged in the soil until she finally dropped her small trowel, plunged both hands deep into the hole she’d made, and pulled at something so violently that she soon tumbled backward onto her rump, her face lit with surprise and confusion at her success.

Terry edged closer to the window to see what she was holding up in the bright sunlight, but he couldn’t make it out without the risk of being seen. Rose may not have been able to recognize the narrow object either, as it was indeterminately shaped and coated with black dirt – an old hammer? a rail spike? a wayward fragment of rebar? Whatever it was, she soon tossed it aside with a silly laugh and a shrug of her shoulders, also saying something out loud as if there were someone there to share the moment, but there was no one. Then her gaze traveled up toward Terry’s house, and he withdrew into the shadows.

Terry had liked Rose for a short while; they had even gone on a couple of dates. At least he thought of them as dates now, although when they occurred they just seemed like accidental agreements to do something together. The first time they’d done something that interested him, the second time something that interested her. And that was the end of it. Doing things with Rose had made Terry aware that not only did they like to do opposite things, but there were two personal aspects of her he just didn’t like. Rose talked too much, especially to thin air; and she was roly-poly.

Now, Rose had told him that she wasn’t talking to thin air. She was talking to her dead husband Frank, whom she claimed was spiritually present at all times. “I don’t mean that he’s like a ghost,” she had explained when they were bouncing along in his pickup on the way to their first date. “I don’t see him walking around the house or anything. I mean that he became such a part of me for twenty years that when he died so suddenly – you know, he was perfectly fine one day and then gone the next – there was a part of his spirit that got, well, stuck in my mind, I guess. And he’s not ready to leave yet, although I’ve been kind of, you know, nudging him recently.” At this point Rose had sighed loudly and rubbed her hands anxiously against her dress, like a young girl just before her first piano recital. “Do you know what I mean?”

Terry had just grunted indistinguishably, meaning to convey something between Okay and I have no idea what you’re talking about. As he resumed peering out the window at Rose restarting her weeding, he decided that that grunt, still clear in his mind weeks later, had been not only judicious but skillful. At that point in time, it had been early enough on a first date to give Rose the benefit of every doubt; still, her explanation of talking to thin air had not been reassuring. Thus, a noncommittal grunt was a brilliant, economical response.

Thereafter she’d said, “Okay, I just wanted you to know that sometimes when it sounds like I’m talking to myself, I’m really not.” Terry hadn’t answered that at all, since he’d already responded to the issue. Rose had sighed again and then gaily asked, “So what is this Tea Party exactly? I hear people talking about it, but I don’t watch TV or read the news because I don’t like to disturb my peace. Will there be a speaker, or is it just a social thing? Do they actually serve tea? I love really good tea!” ....

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