For everything to be perfect, the girl had to boil the water while he sat on the stool in his underwear, hands cuffed behind his back. If Harold had to get up and help her—show her how to light the stove, remind her to salt the water, remove the lid from the pot—then the whole experience might be ruined. Everything had been scripted by Harold well in advance. Once he opened the door for her, he wasn't allowed to say a word, and he had to follow all the girl's orders.
So far, the girl had followed the script perfectly. Medium pot about three-quarters full of warm water, four shakes of salt, high heat. No lid, because he didn't want it to boil too quickly—the anticipation was crucial. "Now we wait," she said, a bit timidly, her voice wavering. She hadn't looked him in the eye since she'd arrived, and now she stared deep into the water. Harold squirmed on his stool and wriggled his wrists as if to escape. "Are they too tight?" she asked, reaching down to loosen the handcuffs. He glared at her and she stopped. He kept wriggling, still glaring at her, until she took a tentative step forward and slapped him. She aimed badly, and instead of smacking him on the cheek, she clubbed him below the ear with her wrist, nearly knocking him off the stool, and causing his ears to ring. The pain was satisfying, like deep muscle soreness after a good workout.
The girl's name was Clara, but he knew her first as RealityChick. They'd met on an Internet message board devoted to popular TV shows. For over a year, they'd engaged in marathon discussions about reality TV competitions. Late at night, their conversations turned personal. Clara was married, but her husband was hooked on meth and he disappeared for weeks at a time. She didn't have any kids yet, but was thinking of getting her tubes tied so she didn't accidentally have her husband's baby. She said she was twenty-four, but she looked like she was eighteen. The truth, Harold figured, was probably somewhere in between.
Clara circled Harold in the kitchen, the heels of her leather boots clicking on the linoleum. He closed his eyes and listened for her approach. She stopped behind him, her crotch pressed against the crown of his head. Even through her underwear, he felt her warmth. "Are you hungry?" she asked. He nodded. "You want some pasta?" she asked. He nodded again. "Well you can't have any, you fat fuck," she said, bending down to smack him on his stomach. She hit him two more times, leaving twin red palm prints below his ribs. Harold's breaths came short and quick, his legs quivered. For the first time in months, he had an erection.
Harold was not fat. He was fit and relatively handsome, in fact. When he posted his photo on the message board, everyone agreed that he was in great shape for his age, and that his brown eyes and slightly graying hair made him look like George Clooney. This did not matter. The script called for him to be fat, so he was fat. The script called for him to be abused, so he deserved to be abused.
She walked back in front of him, uneasily, almost tipping over in her heels. This was her first time wearing thigh-high boots—if she turned an ankle, she would probably break it, and they would have a hard time explaining this scene to the EMTs.
Clara regained her balance and stood in front of him, arms behind her back like a soldier at attention. Then she told him what he already knew—she was going to cook the pasta, but he wasn't allowed to eat any. She was going to lay him on the floor and drain the pasta over his chest, pouring boiling water through a colander onto his skin. She was going to eat the pasta off of him while he burned and writhed on the floor.
Harold's first wife would have been appalled by this scene. She'd once walked in on him watching Internet porn in which a ball-gagged man had his ass paddled by three masked women. Called Harold a sex pervert, demanded to see the rest of his porn collection, and moved out the next day, scrambling like she'd found a pile of bodies in the basement. Their son left with her.
Flames screamed beneath the pot, but the water wasn't moving yet. Forgetting the old rule about watched pots, Clara checked it every thirty seconds. She dipped her finger in and didn't withdraw. They would have to wait at least ten more minutes until it boiled and then another eight while the pasta cooked. The metallic scent in the air reminded him of a summer rain storm. Clara tore open a bag of pasta—farfalle, the bowtie pasta, because she'd said it was her favorite—and crunched an uncooked piece between her front teeth. She swallowed half and flicked the remainder at him, cutting him above the eye. Harold blinked away the pain. She looked concerned again, motherly even, and approached him as if to tend to his wound. He shook his head sternly, cutting her off. She stepped back and ate another bowtie before turning away and dipping her finger back into the water.
He'd been planning this night for months. During the late-night message board conversations, he had begun flirting with her, innocently, jokingly. She reciprocated, and before long, they were discussing a real-life meeting. After work, he signed on every day, simultaneously posting on the message board and writing her emails. The emails told her about his failed marriages, his sons who lived in the same neighborhood but rarely visited, his sexual frustrations. She told him about her fear of her husband, her loneliness, her crushing boredom.
Harold studied Clara from behind. She was not beautiful, but not ugly either. She'd said she was a track star in high school, but after she got married her husband forbid her going to the gym because he didn't want other men looking at her. So she got in the habit of staying home at night, watching TV, and eating to pass the time. She wasn't fat so much as she was average, unremarkable, but he was in no position to judge. Besides, she was the only woman who cared enough to indulge his fantasy. Everyone else he'd ever told, even people in fetish chat rooms, asked him if he was crazy. Asked him if he was abused as a child. Asked him if he had some kind of mommy fetish, or if he was suicidal. Only Clara tried to understand.
She tapped the surface of the water again and pulled back quickly, as if something had snapped at her. A shark, maybe. Piranha. A whole sea full of tempestuous violence and rage. He shifted in his seat. He wanted her to turn around, wanted to see her eyes. He faked a cough, but she did not respond. When he coughed again, she wheeled around and gripped his throat. Her hand was too small to choke him, but it didn't matter, because it felt like she really wanted to cut off his air supply, like she really wanted him to suffocate right there on the kitchen floor. He did not fight. He closed his eyes and invited the choking, waited to feel what it was like to be almost dead. Her eyes glowed with cruelty.
Harold's second wife hadn't been as squeamish as the first. They'd met through an online personals ad, and before the start of their first date, they were already rolling nude on the floor of her apartment. There was another child conceived, another marriage, more sex. But the sex quickly became uninteresting. Initially, he'd thought maybe it was supposed to be like that. His first marriage had been that way, and at work the married men always joked about how they hated their wives. But he knew this was not the problem. He didn't hate his wife; he just couldn't get hard anymore. The doctor prescribed the pills, but they caused awful headaches and abdominal pain. So they tried toys, and that didn't work at all. So they tried role-playing, and that worked once. So they tried whips and chains and paddles, and that was okay, but something was still missing. They didn't mean anything. They weren't real enough. She was the first one he'd ever asked about the boiling water, the pasta, the whole scenario, and it was too much for her. She wanted the sex as much as he did. But she didn't want the weirdness and the pain, and the boiling seemed illegal—the kind of thing that had been outlawed since the Crusades—and why would she want to scar someone she loved? The sex stopped. The communication broke down. The marriage ended. Second wife gone, another son gone.
The water whistled faintly while Harold tried to catch his breath. She'd stopped choking him and looked back to the stove, turning the heat up slightly. According to the clock on the oven, the water had been heating for twelve minutes. During his test runs this week, the water had consistently reached a rolling boil between fourteen and sixteen minutes. Tiny bubbles were probably spinning in the bottom and lining up end to end, while a few swirled to the surface. Steam ascended and curled along the ceiling. He wished the condensation would drip down onto him.
Clara had never been so far away from Stillwater and had only left Oklahoma once before. When he offered her an all-expenses paid vacation halfway across the country, she accepted immediately. She was to spend two nights in the city doing whatever she wanted as long as she didn't contact him. Then she arrived at his apartment today at five o'clock, wearing an ankle-length skirt and a sensible blouse. She'd stepped inside, pushed him into the kitchen and cuffed him before stripping to her leather boots and baggy white underwear.
He was supposed to be at dinner with his younger son, but had cancelled at the last minute when Clara's husband disappeared and she booked the flight. His son laughed at him for meeting with his Internet friends again. They hadn't seen each other in almost six months (he hadn't seen the older son in years, thanks to his first wife) but Harold had no choice. This may have been his only opportunity, and there was no way he could explain this to his son. He couldn't make anyone understand how important this was.
The boil rolled and she poured the pasta in. Eight minutes until it was cooked al dente. She stirred it with a wooden spoon, and then flicked it at him like a priest sprinkling holy water on a coffin. A few drops landed on his chest, and for a moment, he thought he loved her. She dropped the spoon inside the colander, rattling it on the counter.
Neither of them had ever done this before. Once, he'd tried it with a girl he'd met in a chat room, but when the water started boiling, she'd turned it off and crumpled in a teary mess. She'd uncuffed him and then they spent the night on the kitchen floor, holding on to each other, and wishing they could disappear. Clara had been with a few men before her husband, but had never done anything more sexually adventurous than being on top. She'd told Harold something was missing, she needed something different. She'd never imagined life could ever be so boring. What could be worse, she'd asked, than having a life but not knowing what to do with it?
The pasta would cook for four more minutes. Clara clicked around Harold and stopped behind him again. She hooked her arms under Harold's armpits, hoisted him up slightly, and kicked the stool out from under him before dropping him. It hurt more than a short fall should have. Pain shot from his lower back up through his jaw. He lay down on the floor as she stepped out of her underwear and threw it on his face. Kneeling on top of him, she ground against his erection before slipping him inside her.
In two minutes, the pasta would be done and the boiling water would cascade onto his torso, pool in his belly button, splash down onto his balls. It would be the most painful thing he'd ever endured. He might have to go to the hospital. When they'd discussed the script, he'd told her not to stop no matter what he said or did. If he begged, she was supposed to drive her heels into his chest and then pour the water anyway. He didn't want to ruin the night with a single moment of panic. With one minute left, with Clara still riding him, it occurred to him that he might die from this.
He'd considered the pain before, of course, but the danger had never before been so present. The water bubbled angrily, spewing small drops as if on the verge of erupting. Blue flames licked the underside of the pot, curled around the edges like the devil's fingers. Steam burned through the air and Harold empathized with the water as it changed states so rapidly. He inhaled deeply, trying to smell the cooking pasta, but only sensing the heat. Once this was done, he wouldn't be able to think about anything but the heat for days, maybe weeks. Maybe forever.
But people walked on hot coals, didn't they? People pierced themselves in bizarre places and tattooed the insides of their lips. People sky-dived and bungee-jumped. People swallowed swords and jumped over trucks on motorcycles. Of course, these people were afraid too; that's what made it worth doing in the first place. If he had to die for this, he was willing. For as long as he could remember, he hadn't felt anything at all. At least for a moment, he would feel again.
Harold worked on the fifteenth floor of a thirty-floor office building downtown, adding numbers and dividing numbers and inputting numbers in spreadsheets. He had his dental plan and his 401k and his IRA, but they didn't mean anything to him or anyone else. His bosses didn't know who he was and his co-workers didn't care. If no one ever spoke to him, it meant he hadn't made any mistakes. His job was to make himself as invisible as possible; the only things that mattered to the company were his employee ID number and his salary. When he worked his spreadsheets, sometimes he thought about himself being multiplied and divided, shifted and deleted without any warning. Everything in the office building downtown was orderly, everything was sterile. Nobody felt anything anymore and nobody mattered.
Clara slipped off of Harold and left him on the floor, throbbing and straining toward her. His fingers shook with adrenaline. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this excited; he couldn't remember how long it had been since the last time he'd ejaculated. His entire groin ached.
Clara dipped the spoon into the water and sampled a bowtie. She smacked her lips, declared it cooked. She switched off the heat and picked up the colander. Her movements were swift and calculated, her earlier hesitation apparently having faded.
She squatted and grazed the pot over his shin, and he twitched, pulled away. It had barely touched him and he'd been too afraid. She grabbed his foot and held it down, pressed the pot against his knee, only for a second. He groaned and banged his head on the floor. Clara jumped back to her feet, slid the pot onto the counter, and looked at him like she'd just awoken from a trance and had no idea where she was. She shook her head and told him this was crazy. Neither of them moved. He felt himself going limp.
"Do it," he said, "fucking do it. Don't stop now, don't stop, please don't you fucking stop." The words tumbled over each other as he spoke, his volume increasing on each syllable. Kicking his legs like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, he shouted, his words devolving into incoherent, shapeless anger. He thrashed on the floor, eyes teary, until finally, she lifted the pot and poured the water over chest without looking.
He saw it falling, the water cloudy. In the moment before it splashed against his skin, he thought about his wives, his job, his sons who didn't love him, his credit card debt and his anonymous life in a world that had gotten too big for regular people. Then it hit him. Searing pain. Scalding skin, singed hairs. The linoleum a cool relief on his back, the contrast making him feel fevered. The water did not stop. He was drowning in the lake of fire. A soldier on the wrong end of a German flamethrower. Steam rising from his skin. It felt like he would melt. The wicked witch. Already blistering. Writhing, wanting to roll away, but unable. It moved like a drill, driving him down into the center of the earth. Heart clenching as if being stomped on. A painful Baptism. Welcome to the world where you feel everything. He was screaming, probably, but it felt distant, a neighbor yelling at a TV. Nothing mattered but the pain.
He opened his eyes. If he'd blacked out, it wasn't for long. The colander dripped above him, trembling in Clara's hand. He nodded up at her, told her to keep going. So she tipped the colander over and the pasta tumbled down onto him, slapping against the burns, sticking to his skin. She dropped to her knees and ate a bowtie off his thigh. She jerked him off with one hand while tentatively licking the pasta off his torso. She'd only eaten three pieces when he exploded, convulsing wildly, as if the water were still pouring onto him. She stood and stepped away.
Harold felt nauseous. The blisters were already forming. He could not sit up on his own power. Every movement was agonizing. Heat rose off of him like summer asphalt. If he survived, his body would be fettered by ropes of scars. Clara looked down at Harold, saw the splotchy mess she'd made of his body, and gagged. She dressed herself quickly, then knelt to uncuff him. His arms freed, he reached out to touch her, but she was already on her feet again. "I can't stay," she said. "This isn't what I wanted." She picked up a phone and said she was going to call an ambulance.
This was not in the script. He wriggled on the floor trying to get up, eventually working his way to his knees. His skin felt tighter than before, like it would rip in half if he moved too quickly. He told her to hang up, but she ignored him. He crawled toward her, and she stumbled away like he was some kind of monster. Swatting at the phone, he told her again to hang up. If he went to the hospital, they'd want to talk to her too. The police might get involved. No one needed that. She looked at him, scarred and beaten like an escaped POW. She turned away and said she had to go. She dropped the phone and said she didn't expect it to go this far. She was sorry.
He wanted to chase her down and beg her to come back. He wanted to tell her she just didn't understand, but she would if she tried it herself. Someday, she would know why he needed this, and maybe she would need it too. When she did, he would be there for her. It hurt too badly to stay on his knees, so he lowered himself onto his back. A dial tone buzzed in his ear. He blinked and envisioned himself sinking into a cool lake, or burying himself in ice. He blinked again and thought about winter—walking in chest-deep blizzards, maybe becoming a snowman himself. He crossed his arms behind his head like a little boy staring up at the clouds. He saw nothing.