The rough bark of the pole bit into the tender flesh of her bound wrists, skin fraying against the rope. Her bare feet dangled, numb from the frigid air that gnawed her bones. The wintry sky above glowed, surreal cerulean. She lowered her eyes from the sky and stared into the jostling crowd below. They muttered and seethed. Somewhere, someone laughed. A harsh, short laugh, more like a bark than a giggle. Cameras and phones pointed in her direction. A flash went off and her mind stuttered at the utter insanity. She was being made an example of, she understood this, but the thought that anyone would want a record of it, something to go back to, to show their friends and family, to remind themselves of the event; the thought of this made something in her brain snap. Another flash went off, blinding her.
She had been suspended there overnight, swinging from her own limbs. Her fingers and palms had long since succumbed to numb, but her wrists shrieked, radiating pain up into her arms and shoulders, protesting having been pressed against the hard wood for so long. The cold, and cramping collided in clearly calculated agony, keeping her awake. The pain should have made her disoriented, but instead, she saw the world in high definition. Hawklike, her eyes gravitated toward the unnoticed. She examined the cellular makeup of the air around her. The dust motes hanging in the halfhearted rays of sunlight seeping their way through the clouds, each needle on the pine trees at the edge of the forest, her own blood rushing her life delicately through her body.
The churning crowd hushed, drawing her attention to the man with the flamethrower – a shadow in the shape of a person. The black hole where his face should have been shifted, looking up at her. She tried to empty her brain, prepare herself. The shadow’s machine spurted torrents of orange and crimson, and the wood beneath her feet burst into heat. It felt good at first. The warmth was some small relief to her frozen toes and she was transported, for a moment to a happier time. A time when they had stumbled in from the snow and he had pulled her boots off near the fire and held her frostbitten feet between his warm palms and they had laughed and smiled and everything had been comfort and heat between them. A time when things had been stable and he had been kind. A time when she had trusted him, despite his station. A time before he had divulged her secrets. It had been sensitive information, she had known that, but she had gone against her intuition, convinced herself that his feeling for her was enough to protect her. She had been naive, she knew that now. But the time for epiphanies had passed. As the flames began to claw their way up the pyre and her toes began to thaw, a dull ache pushed in as if in anticipation of the impending torment.
The throbbing from the cold morphed into stinging shocks and she twitched involuntarily as her skin burst into blisters. She bit down on her lips trying to delay the screams she knew were inevitable. And then, with horrifying speed, the stinging thrust into a searing, that shattered into an agony so strong she feared she would explode. The heat radiated from inside her own skin. She gasped and her gasp distorted into a disembodied shriek: inhuman, feral. Even through the pain, she was aware of how disconnected she felt from the sound of her own voice. As though her very being was rending into disparate aspects of itself. She could no longer tell if she was feeling the pain or if it was simply a memory, an echo of suffering. Her whole body flushed as though she had been submerged into a bath of ice water and she screamed again, but this time it was less of a shriek and more of a whimper, and her head slumped and she was silent.
The crowd below scrutinized her through their glowing screens. They were no longer jostling. The silence thickened as her skin and muscle split and fat and blood began to ooze out of her in rivulets of red. The flames crackled and spat with tiny explosions. As they groped higher up her legs, they caught her thin shift, stripping her pale body bare just long enough for everyone to snap a photo before the fire devoured her entirely. Soon, she no longer looked like a person, simply a black hole where something human should have been. A simulacrum of woman. Tar black smoke stretched from the pyre, staining the blue sky with shadow. The crepitating flames ricocheted in dissonance against the particles of the ominously silent winter day. No one in the crowd made a sound.