I love snow. In the winter, when I have a hot flash at night, I can strip off all my clothes, go in the back yard and roll around in a snow bank. Thank goodness for privacy fences.
In the summer, I am perpetually sweaty and red-faced, my lank hair stuck to the side of my head. I have to rely on air conditioning and fans, which are completely inadequate. I tried to talk my husband into installing a walk-in freezer in Jack Jr’s bedroom, since he was away at college now. Jack didn’t even look up from his Sudoku.
We were in the car, on our way home from a day of work at Jack’s dental practice. I had started there as a receptionist back when he was trying to establish himself, and in time had morphed into his office manager. Not what I had in mind when I had gotten a business degree, but it had served us well enough over the years.
I had the air conditioning cranked up as high as it would go. Jack’s forearms were covered in goose flesh, but he didn’t say anything. He was driving too fast on the county road, as he always did.
“Marcy told me that her nephew got a ticket along this stretch last week.”
He ignored me. A pickup blew past us. I stared daggers at it, thinking thoughts of speeding tickets, roll overs and fiery crashes.
The truck slowed, and a cloud of dark smoke rose from its hood. The driver pulled over. I caught a glimpse of him cursing as we drove past. The heat in my chest magically subsided, and I adjusted the air conditioning.
Just a coincidence, right? The same as at the grocery store yesterday. That woman nearly ran me down with her cart because she was looking at her phone. I was cranky and dripping sweat. I glared at her cart, and the lid popped off her half gallon of ice cream, splattering her and her phone with chocolate. As she came to an abrupt halt, the container tipped over and a river of melted ice cream sloshed onto her shoes and the floor. I realized all the sweat on my body had dried, and I felt better than I had in days.
It was crazy to assume there could be any connection, but how many coincidences could I explain away?
I remember a story my mother told me about an ancestor who had been burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials. She had been accused of setting fires without a match, and of dancing naked in the woods. According to my mother, the more likely explanation was that the women in our family run especially hot during “the change.” She used to joke that we were the cause of global warming.
When I was a teenager, I remember my mother having spells where she suddenly turned red and started sweating. There were a few kitchen fires during that time, and once a small fire in her bedroom that she blamed on a candle. We kept fire extinguishers in every room in the house. Still, my mother died in a car fire that was never adequately explained. I heard my foster parents talking about “spontaneous human combustion” one night, but when I asked about it, they denied it.
Jack pulled into the garage and shut off the engine. He sat back and closed his eyes. I hadn’t shared any of my concerns with him. He was a man of science. I was afraid he would put me in the booby hatch.
“Tired?” I asked.
“How does a chef salad sound for dinner?”
“Good,” he said. “I’m going to take a quick shower, then I’ll come set the table, okay?”
In the kitchen, I put eggs in a pan of water and set it on a burner. I reached for the knob, but then hesitated. Taking a step back, I stared at the pot and thought about boiling water and tried to direct heat at it. No bubbles rose in the water. I tested it with a finger. Still cold. Smiling, I turned on the burner. Maybe I was crazy after all.
After dinner, I got to work on the favor bags for the reception the next day. Jack’s parents were having their Golden Anniversary tomorrow and I had been tapped to plan the shindig. If it had been left to Jack and his brother, they would have gotten a keg and thrown a big barbecue. My in-laws wanted a little more than that. They told me my sister-in-law Sandra would help, but she had claimed to be too busy. I guess manicures and CrossFit classes take up a lot of time. No matter. She would have been more trouble than she was worth, anyway.
It was trash night, so I took a break to push the cart to the curb. I walked through the gate into the back yard and directly into a huge, sticky spider web that spread from the neighbor’s tree to the ground. As I cursed and jumped around, I swatted at a crawling sensation that might or might not be real and tried to wipe away the bits of clingy silk. Our neighbor had an enormous tree that hadn’t been trimmed in years. Some of the branches pushed against the fence, making it bow. Others hung over the fence, all the way to the ground. It was a pain in the butt to try to mow around.
Heat bloomed over my chest and spread up my neck. Withered leaves rained down over me, followed by twigs. I picked one up. It was covered in a fine ash. Just as I was thinking, “Uh oh,” a loud crack resonated through the air. A limb of the tree broke loose and fell through the neighbor’s picture window.
I ducked into the garage, heart pounding. That wasn’t a coincidence. That really happened. I shivered, and I realized that for the first time in days, I was cold.
Jack had dozed off in his recliner in front of the TV, and he was a heavy sleeper. I listened carefully, but despite the crash of breaking glass next door, he appeared to have slept through it. I could hear conversations outside, as the people next door came out of the house to investigate and other neighbors gathered to ask what had happened. I grabbed a sweater from my car and wrapped up, then I climbed into the driver’s seat and closed the door behind me. It was dark and still in the garage, and the car helped to muffle the sounds outside.
I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes. I was around the same age my mother had been when she died. Had she understood what was happening to her? Had she known what was coming? As far as I knew, I didn’t have any other family. Had they all died this way or was it only the women?
Did this have to be a death sentence? Maybe I could figure out ways to let the heat out in a directed, safe way. I might even be able to do some good with it. I could be a super hero. The Hot Flash! I could have a big H on my chest. The thought of those skin-tight super hero costumes made me cringe. Maybe I could be the first hero to wear yoga pants.
How was I supposed to fight crime? I’d have to find it, in the first place. I guess the police commissioner could project a big outline of a flame into the sky. Of course, that would only work at night, and I always closed the blinds when the sun went down. Maybe I could just give him my cell number. I pictured myself walking up to the police commissioner and handing him a card from the dental practice with my number penciled in.
“Call me if there are any crimes in progress.”
And how was I supposed to fight a bad guy? Maybe I could melt a gun or knife, or at least make it hot enough so the criminal would drop it, but what was I supposed to do about a fist? What would happen if I threw a blast of heat at a person? I guess if I could generate enough heat to affect a car engine then I could probably cook a person’s organs.
Ew. Imagine the smell.
And who would my nemesis be? Enlarged Prostate Man?
No. About the best I could manage as a super hero would be to help one of those whales that got trapped in the ice. I could swim ahead of it, melting the ice as I went, and lead it back to the ocean. Of course, there weren’t any local whales. I would have to fly to the Arctic Circle. Economy class.
I was exhausted. My body seemed to be under control for now, so I didn’t have to figure this out tonight. After the reception tomorrow, I would try to come up with some sort of plan. Right now, those treat bags weren’t going to fill themselves with Hershey’s almond kisses. I only hoped I didn’t melt any of them.
The next day, I got to the reception hall early. I had made it through the night without any hot flashes, but I had still slept poorly. My eyes felt gritty, and my hair was full of static electricity.
The banquet workers had spread white linen cloths over all the round tables, and laid out white china edged with gold. I placed favor bags at each table setting, and then used a helium tank to fill gold balloons and attach them to each of the table centerpieces. The bakery delivered a flawless reproduction of my in-laws’ wedding cake.
Jack’s parents were avid motorcycle fans, and had ridden on six continents. It was a dangerous hobby, but if they ever got into an accident, at least their sons could fix their teeth. They had some absolutely gorgeous pictures from their travels, and I had spent hours sorting them and arranging them with family pictures from over the years. I was testing the projector to make sure the slide show would work properly, when my sister-in-law Sandra called out to me from across the room.
I was wearing a blue wrap dress that was supposed to hide the bulges, but didn’t. She was wearing a scarlet wrap dress, and didn’t have any bulges. Her hair and makeup were perfect.
“This is… cute!” she said, in a way that let me know she thought the room was tacky. “Are Jack and Jack Jr here yet?”
“Jack is on his way. Jack Jr couldn’t make it home this weekend.”
“Evan is picking up Evan Jr from the airport right now. He wanted to surprise his grandparents. He’s such a sweet boy. So how is Jack Jr doing at Stanford?” She always managed to say the word “Stanford” in a way that conveyed sympathy.
My husband was a dentist. His brother Evan was an oral surgeon. My son went to Stanford. Their son went to Harvard. My son’s major was undeclared. Their son was pre-med.
Evan was a good egg. His wife was not.
I was saved from making further conversation by a commotion at the door. Two men were hauling in a wooden crate. Sandra waved them to a spot next to the little stage.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Just a little surprise,” she said, her eyes twinkling.
I felt a bloom of heat in my chest.
Inside the crate was a life-sized ice sculpture of a motorcycle. Set below were little golden lights that shone up through the sculpture. It should have looked like it was carved from ice a dog had peed on, but it didn’t. It was gorgeous.
Sandra clapped her hands and thanked the delivery guys. As they wheeled away the pieces of crate, she followed them out, flirting as she went.
I had spent hours consulting with the caterer, sorting pictures, finding people to speak, designing programs, and handling countless other details. It was all going to be overshadowed by an overpriced chunk of ice.
The heat inside me started to build. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, trying to cool the anger. I thought about icebergs and snow banks, and sorbet. The heat built; then it disappeared. I opened my eyes.
The ice sculpture was nothing but a nub sitting in a big puddle of water.
I looked around wildly. Sandra hadn’t returned yet and the banquet workers were in the kitchen. I was alone. I trotted off to the bathroom.
When I looked in the mirror, the redness was gone from my eyes, and the bags underneath had shrunk. My hair no longer looked like I had stuck my finger in a light socket. I should have felt guilty, but I couldn’t seem to stop smiling.
What kind of person was happy to cause this sort of destruction? I had destroyed some poor guy’s truck, broken my neighbor’s picture window and melted my sister-in-law’s glorious surprise. I should be ashamed of myself.
That’s when it dawned on me, and my heart filled with glee.
I didn’t have to be a hero. I could be a villain.