When I was in fifth grade, I developed an inexplicable, but severe fear of spontaneous combustion. That year, my younger brother returned home from the Scholastic Book Fair with a book about unexplained supernatural phenomena. I loved spooky stories about mysterious ghosts and cryptid creatures, so at the first possible opportunity, I stole the book into my bedroom and eagerly thumbed through chapters on Nessie, the Bermuda Triangle, and DB Cooper before arriving at the section that would soon become the source of my deepest, most pervasive childhood fear.

In that chapter were lurid descriptions of people who spontaneously caught on fire as they sat in their armchairs, or brushed their teeth, or got ready for work in the morning. First, they’d feel strangely hot, as though they were sitting right next to the radiator. The heat would grow and grow until the limits of their physical forms could contain it no longer, and they’d suddenly burst into flame, burning to death within minutes. When the fire ran out of body to consume, the only parts of these people that remained were a shrunken skull, or a lone tibia, and the smell of smoke, and strangely enough, a faint hint of oranges. The thought of those forlorn parts, lying prone on the ground, still slightly smoking, struck my pre-adolescent mind with a paralyzing terror that I had never felt before, and have never quite felt again since. My thoughts began to race. I grew convinced that I myself was in danger of spontaneous combustion. The victims I had read about had no idea that they were marked for a horrible and inexplicable demise, that they were doomed to the fate of becoming human fireballs, that the body that tethered them to this earth would one day be reduced to a single bone lying atop a pile of ashes and a strange, smoky-sweet smell. On the outside, they seemed like normal people, but there was obviously something wrong with them, deep inside, under their skin. Why else would they have burst into flame? I could think of nothing that differentiated me from the spontaneously combusted — it was entirely possible that I might be set alight at any moment, and there was no way to know if, or when, it would happen. 

Perhaps the authors of this children’s book realized that the concept of spontaneous human combustion might be a little too intense for the Scholastic Book Fair demographic, so at the end of the chapter, they offered the following advice: Should you find yourself spontaneously combusting, cover all of your exposed skin with at least one layer of cloth, and you’ll prevent the fire from catching. In hindsight, this tip makes very little sense — were all the people who spontaneously combusted completely naked when it happened? But in that moment, I clung onto this advice like a lifeline. For an embarrassingly long time, I would bury myself in layers and layers of blankets every night, taking pains to leave no patch of skin uncovered, lest I spontaneously combust in my sleep. 

Although I was terrified of that book, my morbid curiosity occasionally compelled me to sneak into my brother’s room, open it, and read the Spontaneous Combustion Chapter again. The book had a strange sort of power over me. I would approach it slowly, tiptoeing all the way from my room to my brother’s bookshelf. I handled the book with a reverence usually reserved for ancient medieval manuscripts, careful not to drop it, tear a page, crease the cover. I skimmed through the preceding chapters quickly; the phenomena of Bigfoot and the Mothman were interesting, and I could pretend to myself that they were what drew me to read, but the book and I both knew the real reason why I was there. The Spontaneous Combustion Chapter had a magnetic pull over me. I could sense its approach as I sped through the other chapters — fear and revulsion welled up in my ribcage like a balloon, and yet some irresistible compulsion drew me to keep going, to turn the page, to gaze upon the words that terrified me so. I read the stories of bodies mysteriously set ablaze in a sort of trance, reluctant to continue, and yet too afraid to put the book down until I reached the section where the authors cautioned me to swaddle my skin to keep from burning. Maybe I thought that if I didn’t reread that crucial bit of advice, I’d forget to bundle up when It inevitably happened, and then nothing would protect me from the fire. Once I finished the chapter, I’d snap the book shut, forgoing the following chapters, and dash back to the safety of my bedroom, furiously tugging at my sleeves and pant legs to ensure that all of my skin was covered, protected from the latent potential to ignite. 

As the years went by, I slowly forgot my fear of spontaneous combustion without even realizing it — the realer, more mundane anxieties of adolescence crept in, occupying my prime mental real estate, distracting me from my fear of fire. However, as I grow older, I begin to suspect that my childhood terror never really subsided. I don’t necessarily think that the fears of our youths follow us into adulthood like tailgaters on the freeway — instead, I think that parts of our selves are frozen in time, preserved like flies in amber at the age of 8 or 10 or 14, and that when we feel those childhood fears, we briefly become children again. 

Sandra Cisneros says that all our past selves, our previous ages, rattle around inside us like pennies in an old can. I’m almost 21, but in many ways I still feel 11. Or, rather, I can feel my 11-year-old self moving inside me, terrified of bursting into flame, cocooning herself in duvets and blankets in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. The part of my brain that has learned critical thinking and reading comprehension wants to assure her that spontaneous combustion is an urban legend, that she has nothing to fear, but I can’t reach her. Our connection is a one-way street. I remember when I was her, but she still has almost a decade to go before she becomes me. 

If you were to cut me in half, I think I’d look like one of those cross-sections of ancient centenarian trees — ring after ring of old fears and old selves encircled by newer ones. Age 7: my fear of contamination, of dying after accidentally ingesting some speck of bacteria-laden dirt. Age 11: spontaneous combustion. Age 13: the possibility that my middle school boyfriend might try to hold my hand as we stood in line for pretzels and slushies at Auntie Anne’s, and that I might freeze up, or worse, instinctually slap his hand away. Age 17: the possibility of being rejected from every single college that I applied to. (This one actually happened, funnily enough.) Now: that everyone I know thinks I’m bizarre and odd and fundamentally strange, but are too polite to tell me so. There is no rationalizing away these fears. There is nothing I can say to any of these previous selves to convince them that everything will be alright, that they aren’t going to die, that they’re not doomed, that even when these fears have come to pass, they have not yet managed to sink me. At random moments, a younger self steps into my body, and I feel her terror again, as pervasive and consuming as it felt when I was 7, 11, 13, 17. I am paralyzed by her fear for a few long moments, and then the feeling passes like a cloud over the sun, and I am myself again.

I cannot put these fears to rest, so I live with them. As I traipse through my life, I constantly run the risk of unearthing some long-buried anxiety and exposing it to the sunlight again. To live a life governed by the arcane and inexplicable laws of fear is to be the curator of a museum of past selves. I have no choice but to take care of all the versions of myself that I used to be. I cannot resent them for the way they phase in and out of my body. It’s not their fault that they’re scared — I have to treat them with the same kindness that I’d treat any frightened little kid. They cannot hear me, but I must try to comfort them anyway. 

Caroline Hsu is a junior from Deerfield, Illinois studying English, linguistics, and film. She was very scared to submit her writing and almost chickened out, so this is a hilariously full circle moment for her.”