Flash Fiction Friday: The Great Fire

greatfire-copy

The old man watched as the house burned.

The fire spread from room to room in a crackling orgy of smoke and flames. The smell. The noise. The heat. There was a strange beauty to it—a fatal, blackening dance that consumed everything in its path.

The old man was not sure how long he stood there alone with the fire and the flames. The house was on the end of a long winding road deep in the woods. The nearest town was at least 40 minutes away, and the closest fire department was even further. He made no move to call either, or to fetch help. There was no point.

Eventually a fire truck came, the siren blaring in the night. Someone must have seen the fire blazing like a lighthouse in a sea of trees. The firemen knew their jobs and they acted quickly, expertly. It was too late for the house, of course, as the old man knew it would be, but they strived mightily to keep the flames from spreading.

The trees and brush were unusually dry for the time of year, and a forest fire could have consumed a whole swath land. There had already been three in the past month. An epidemic or a plague.

One of the firemen asked a serious of questions in a low, calm voice, as if speaking to a child, and the old man responded slowly in a monotone voice.

“Where did the fire start?”

The attic.

“Was their anyone else in the house?”

Just me. I live alone.

“Are you hurt?”

No.

They left him alone after that, although he caught a few worried glances. They thought he was in shock, of course. Only natural. But he wasn’t. He was simply lost in the flames.

“Do you have anywhere to go?” the fire chief asked finally. He was big man with a greying mustache, caked in soot and ash.

“I have my hat,” the old man said. “And I have my coat. Don’t worry about me.”

The fire chief frowned. “Are you sure? One of my men could…”

But he was talking to the air. The old man was gone, as if he’d never been there. Leaving only footprints in the dirt.

“Where did he go?” the fire chief demanded. The others shrugged. They had been watching the fire. “Did you even catch his name?”

No.

There was a suitcase waiting in the bushes about half a mile down the road. The old man reached down into the bramble, ignoring the minor cuts and bruises, and retrieved the battered, leather  case. It was nearly as old as he was, and untouched by any flames.

He turned at the end of the lane for one final glimpse of the fire. A wisp of a smile crossed his face and then he was gone.

It was not his house. He just liked to watch the world burn.

Advertisements

Flash Fiction Friday: Along the Waterfront

waterfront-copy

They waited on the waterfront for Mr. Birch to arrive. There were five of them—distinguished men in long coats and expensive shoes. Their cars were parked down the road, and their drivers were milling around out of sight. None of them wanted to be there.

Mr. Summerscale checked his watch for the third time and sighed. He was familiar with Birch’s peculiarities, and had brought a crossword to pass the time. Five across was proving exceptionally stubborn, but he had no intention of admitting as much. The others would have laughed.

Young Mr. Bennett, who must have been nearly fifty by now, would have sneered and made some spiteful comment about his age. Summerscale had never like the little upstart and the feeling was mutual. In fact, Summerscale was not particularly fond of any of his compatriots. Burton was an uncultured snob, who substituted volume for taste. Isenberg was always smiling as if he knew a secret no one else did, and he might. And as for Preston, Summerscale shuddered. No one liked Preston.

He was standing apart from the others feeding the birds. They flocked to him, pigeons and seagulls mostly, squawking and bitting and flapping. Preston preferred birds to people. He had an entire taxidermy collection that was infamous in certain circles. PETA was rumored to have an entire filing cabinet devoted solely to the east wing of Preston’s mansion and another for the west.

These were the people Summerscale was forced to consort with, the other members of their little cabal.

Birch had chosen them all years ago, perhaps on a whim, and bound them together with shared secrets and shared wonder.

Summerscale checked his watch again. 3:00 PM precisely.  It was time.

He folded his newspaper under his arm and removed his reading glasses. Around him the others stirred nervously. Isenberg’s smile became strained, as if his store of secrets had turned sour and even Preston shuddered briefly beneath his coat.

Finally there was a great flash of light that burned across Summerscale’s eyes, igniting his corneas in an explosion of stars.

When the lights faded, there was a man standing on the waterfront, brushing ash from his suit.

Mr. Birch had arrived.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Last Flamingo Trainer

pexels-photo-441222

It was two o’clock on a Friday afternoon, when the flamingo trainer presented his card. He was a stout, little man with oil-slick hair and a dark woolen suit.

“You may inform your master that Mr. Frederico Ardovini is here,” he announced grandly. “The Greatest Flamingo Trainer in the world!”

The old man who opened the door regarded him skeptically for a long moment with sharp, milky eyes.

“I am the master of the house,” he said finally. “And I have no need of a flamingo trainer, the greatest or otherwise.”

You are the master of the house?” Ardovini asked incredulously and with not a little scorn. It was a very grand house, after all, with over a dozen bedrooms, four libraries, an orrery in the attic, and over five acres of grounds. The thought that such a man would answer his own door was unthinkable. Almost as unthinkable as a man in possession of a flamboyance of  flamingoes not requiring a flamingo trainer.

“I am,” the older gentleman said with all the wounded dignity of a man of sufficient wealth and station to answer his own door if he wished to, and to close said door in the face of any itinerant flamingo trainer.

“Forgive me,” Ardovini said with a bow and a tip of his hat. “I meant no offense, Mr….?”

“Albert Barnett Jennings, esq.” The old man smirked. “And no doubt you were simply expressing surprise at my…?”

“Humble demeanor,” Ardovini interjected without a moment’s hesitation.

“Ah.” Mr. Albert Barnett Jennings nodded with a mocking twinkle in his eye. “Of course. Well, Mr. Ardovini, regardless of my demeanor, I am still not in need of a flamingo trainer.”

“But you have some of the finest flamingoes in the country here,” Ardovini protested. “They are known far and wide for their plumage and their bright color.”

“Indeed,” Jennings agreed, whose flamingoes had, in fact, recently won best in show at the 87th Annual Flamingoes, Finches, and Duckbills Festival. “And while that explains why you might wish to work with me, it does not explain why I would need you.”

Ardovini ran a hand through his hair and smiled far too brightly. “I understand your reluctance, Mr. Jennings, esq, but give me five minutes with your flamingoes and I’ll show you what I can do. Please…”

Slowly and against his better judgement, Mr. Albert Barnett Jennings nodded. After all, what was the harm?

*

There were forty-three flamingoes in Mr. Jenning’s flamboyance or colony. They were all gorgeous, pink, long-necked creatures with a violent disposition that ranged from grumpy to down-right homicidal. They inhabited a medium-sized pond, which Jennings had commissioned especially for them and equipped with a constant supply of brine-shrimp and algae.

“If I might have a moment alone with these exquisite creatures?” Ardovini asked, his hat doffed in his hands.

Mr. Jennings raised a dubious eyebrow. The flamingoes were all perched on one leg, staring balefully at their would-be trainer.

“It’s your funeral,” Jennings said. “I’ll give you five minutes and then you’re gone.”

“We shall see.” Ardovini seemed supremely, even suspiciously confident.

“Keep an eye on him,” Jennings murmured to his gamekeeper. That worthy fellow nodded silently and put a finger to his nose. He had been Mr. Jenning’s batman in the war and could be relied upon for his discretion and his willingness to protect the flamingoes as if they were his own children.

*

When Mr. Jennings, esq. returned precisely five minutes later, he found a bewildered groundsman and a grinning flamingo trainer.

“Usually I have more time,” Ardovini said. “To become acquainted with the birds individually, but I’ve done the best I could in the time allotted. Every flamingo is secretly a drama queen, after all. Now, with your permission?”

Jennings glanced at his groundsman who merely shrugged helplessly.

“Very well, Mr. Ardovini. Impress me.”

“As you wish.” Ardovini tossed his hat into the air with a flourish, and cried in a loud, clear, unaccented voice. “Ah one, two, ah one, two, three, four!”

And then, before Mr. Jennings’ eyes, his award-winning flamboyance of flamingoes began to dance the polka in perfect, pink unison.

“So,” the flamingo trainer asked, “are you impressed yet?”

Flash Fiction Friday: The Girl Who Caught Lightning

to-catch-lightning-copy

There was once a little girl who could ride the lightning as easily as you or I could ride a train or a bus. Her name was Eve and she was six years old.

She lived in a little house on the end of Menagerie Road with her mother, two sisters and a cat. Eve didn’t have a father. Her older sister, Meg, said he ran away with a mermaid from the wharfs and never bothered to say goodbye. Eve didn’t believe her. Even at four, she didn’t believe in mermaids.

Her other sister, Jessie, who was eighteen and married to a longshoreman, said that Papa had simply gone for the milk one night and never returned.

Then she bopped Eve on the nose and said: “Maybe he became a pirate.”

Eve believed in pirates more than she believed in mermaids, but Jessie had been grinning when she said it, and Eve never trusted her grin.

In the end, it did not matter where here father had gone, only that he was gone. It didn’t effect Eve much either way. She only remembered him vaguely as a man with a pipe and a large stamp collection, and her life was much the same as it would have been anyway.

Then came the lightning.

She was on her way home one rainy afternoon, jumping gleefully from puddle to puddle, when there was a sharp crack of thunder, louder than any you have ever heard, followed by a flash of lightning.

Later, when people asked, Eve could never explain why she did it. Instinct, perhaps, or a strange form of vertigo.

But in that moment. she reached out her hand and caught the lightning between her fingers. It was like liquid light and a thousand electric shocks all at once.

And then she vanished.

One minute she was on Menagerie Road, the next she was swimming in a sea of electricity and air, dancing gaily in the light. It was better than anything she had ever imagined. Better even than the ferris wheel she had snuck on one lazy Sunday afternoon.

After what felt like an eternity in the lightning but was only seconds, Eve emerged in a flash. But she wasn’t on Menagerie Road anymore.

She was somewhere else.

Eve blinked and wiped the rain from her eyes. Eve didn’t believe in mermaids and had her doubts about pirates, but she had never doubted her own senses.

The row of dirty rundown houses she called home was gone. So were the battered old cars and the stench of the sea, everything. She was lost. But she was not afraid.

All she needed was another lightning bolt.

Above the storm clouds gathered.

 

Flash Fiction Friday: The Bone Collector

beluga-whale-bones-225255b525255d

The girl wakes every morning long before the sun rises. She is eleven years old, or perhaps twelve. Birthdays are for other people. People with parents and sisters and brothers. She sees them sometimes on the edges, walking hand-in-hand, laughing or talking or crying.

The girl never laughs, and she never speaks unless to whisper absently to the rocks and bones. And tears like birthdays are for other people. She has no need of them. She lives alone in a crumbling shack just beyond the sea of bones and is content.

No one knows where the bone yard came from. Fifty square, barren miles of dirt and dust and bones. The teeth are the best. Still sharp and easily adaptable. The girl sells them when she can for food and blankets. Once, when she was young and foolish, she sold seventy-two well-polished teeth for a doll made of straw. She could have fed herself for a month for half the price, but the straw made good kindling in the end.

Occasionally, serious men and women in severe suits and dresses came with their clipboards and false smiles. And their questions. Always the same three questions.

“Where are your parents?”

Dead.

“How old are you?”

None of your business.

“Wouldn’t you like to come with us?”

No.

But they never believed her when she said no. The women would tut and the men would frown, and sometimes they would return with men in long coats and far too sweet voices.

“You need to come with us,” they would say. “It’s for your own good.”

Never.

And no matter how many there were or how fast they ran, she always lost them amidst the bones. Until one day they stopped coming.

Until one day there was only the girl and her garden of bones.

 

Flash Fiction Friday: The Rabbit Dilemma

european-rabbits-bunnies-grass-wildlife

Our Loving Couple

“I shall endeavor, darling, not to become a rabbit,” the man said solemnly.

His wife looked up from her breakfast and studied him silently for a moment. A reticent man by nature, especially where his wife was concerned, he did his best to convey his utmost sincerity. Whatever she found on his face must have been convincing.

“Good,” the woman said with a firm nod. “See that you don’t.” Then returned to her coffee.

The silence lingered over the table, festering as it had many times before. He had learned to accept, even enjoy the silences. His wife was not a morning person and had once managed to fling a cup and saucer at him with deadly, half-awake accuracy. The bruises had lasted for weeks. Her laughter, when she finally woke, had never fully ended.

There was a question, however, that needed to be answered. It marinated in the juice and crackled in the cereal until finally he thought he was going to burst. He opened his mouth, thought for a second, then closed it again.

“What is it?” his wife asked without looking up.

“Nothing.” He hesitated. “Only…”

“Yes?”

“WouldyoustilllovemeifIwasarabbit?”

“Excuse me?”

“Would you still love me if I was a rabbit?” he repeated.

“Yes,” she answered instantly. “I would.”

The man sagged in relief. “Thank God,” he said. “Because I’m not sure…”

“But I would love you,” she continued, “as I would love a rabbit and all other furry creatures. Except squirrels. I hate squirrels.”

He nodded, despite himself. Her opinion on squirrels was long-standing and vigorous. “But that’s all?” he half asked, half pleaded.

“Well, I couldn’t love you as a husband,” she said. “That would be bestiality.”

“I-I didn’t mean…”

She sighed and reached across the table to pat his hand. “I know,” she said with a smile. “I was only teasing. And it doesn’t matter anyway. You’re not going to turn into a rabbit.”

“You can’t know that!” he said. “Look at Lisa and Tim! She turned into a bunny just last week!”

“I am not Tim,” she said stiffly. “And you are not Lisa.”

There were a great many things he could say to that, but h wisely held his tongue. Although his nose did twitch, ever so slightly. A nervous habit. Probably.

“What was that?” His wife cried accusingly.

“What?”

“Your nose,” she said through clenched teeth. “It twitched.”

“No it didn’t,” he protested. “…Did it?”

“Yes,” she said. “It did. And you shall desist at once. I. Shall. Not. Have. It.”

“Yes, dear,” he said and meant it, but deep inside he knew that there was no fighting science.

The Rabbit Plague had no known cure. And the vaccine was a joke. Some people were simply going to turn into rabbits and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It was genetics.

And he was certainly not going to mention that his wife’s ears had started looking a little longer recently.

He was a rabbit, not a fool.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Artist

pexels-photo-90056

 

They came for the artist in the night, dragged him down the stairs roughly, but careful always of his fingers, and threw him into the back of an unmarked van. Despite the commotion, his neighbors deliberately did not wake, did not hear, did wonder. To notice was to be noticed, as the artist had been.

That would have puzzled them, if they had dared to think about it. He had never struck them as particularly noticeable. His name was Mendoza. He sold his paintings in street fairs and on the boardwalk—solid, if uninspired, knockoffs of familiar classics. He had painted at least two hundred dogs and other assorted animals playing poker, before branching out into parcheesi and yahtzee. He also had a reasonable successful side-line in portraiture, drawing tourists for what amounted to drinking money. Mendoza was not, in short, the sort of man one expected to be taken in the middle of the night.

The neighbors were not the only ones who were puzzled. The artist himself was utterly confused, as well as frightened, and more than a little cold. He had been taken and given no time to procure a pair shoes or even socks.

Outside his window, a light snow was falling. It melted on a pavement. As he watched the snow fall, shivering, the artist couldn’t help but imagine the horrors that awaited him. He had heard the rumors and the stories of dark, forgotten prisons, of internment camps and torture. He had a vivid imagination, perhaps too vivid at times like these, but no matter how hard he tried, what he had done to deserve those looming horrors continued to elude him.

The car passed through the dark gates and past the ravenous guard dogs, and pulled up outside the governor’s mansion. The governor’s men escorted him up the stairs and into the mansion itself. The wind was biting and the ground felt cold beneath his feet.

The guards did not speak. Not that the artist could have heard them over his own heavy breathing, the chattering of his teeth, and the thundering of his heart. His stomach churned and twisted, and his world contracted into his body and his fears.

They deposited him in a dark room at the back of the house. The curtains were drawn and the shadows were long. The walls were covered with paintings from floor to ceiling and half a dozen more were stacked on the floor. He could not make them out in the gloom, but the governor was known to be an art collector par excellence.

As he began to calm down and his teeth stopped chattering, the artist slowly became aware that he was not alone. There was a tall, straight-backed figure standing in the far corner, studying him as intently as he had studied the paintings, to much greater effect. Realizing that he had been noticed at last, the figure clapped his hands, and suddenly the room was illuminated.

The artist blinked in the sudden light. He was alone with the governor, but there was a greater surprise waiting. The paintings.  They were his. Every single one.The artist gapped, unable to even gasp, so great was his shock.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Mendoza,” the governor said.

“S-sir,” Mendoza managed after a long moment. He could feel the governor’s eyes on him, taking in his shivering form, barefoot in his pajamas.

“I hope my boys weren’t too rough with you,” the governor continued. Mendoza said nothing. There was nothing to say.

“To business then. I’m sure you’re wondering why I invited you here this evening.”

The artist nodded.

“It’s simple enough,” said the governor. “I want you to tell me about her.” He pointed.

There was a young woman in every painting—in the shadows, peeking out from behind corners, reflected in mirrors or windows. She was easy to miss, but once you knew what you were looking for, she was everywhere.

The artist coughed. “Sir?” he asked. “She’s just a little joke. Something to keep myself amused.

“Yes, yes.” The governor waved his hand. “But do you know who she is? Why do you paint her as you do? Why those eyes? Why that hair?” There was an inexplicable need in his voice that Mendoza could not understand.

“No one,” he said. “She’s no one. Just a figment of my imagination.”

“No,” the governor snapped. “She is not no one. She is my daughter.”

The words hung in the air with terrible, perplexing certainty. The artist was dumbfounded. “Your daughter, sir? But I thought…”

“You thought she’d died as a child,” the governor finished. “She did. It was the worst day of my life.”

The artist stared in mute incomprehension. Whatever he had been expecting it was not this. He hadn’t even expected anyone to even notice the woman.

“You have painted her,” the governor continued, “as she would have been. Those are her mother’s eyes. That is my hair. She has come to you, Mr. Mendoza. She has chosen you as her instrument, out of everyone in the world, and now you will paint her. Not in glimpses but as herself, full and proper.”

“I…I’m sure I understand, sir.”

“You will paint my daughter’s portrait, Mr. Mendoza. You will paint her, or you will die.”

Flash Fiction Friday: The Ghost Congregation

 

The ghosts gathered every seventh Sunday in an old abandoned church by the side of a long dusty road. They came in twos and threes and singly. They came from far and wide, some with rattling chains and others silent as the grave. They were the lost and forgotten, the left behind.

They had no names, the dead, for death is nameless. They had no speech, for death is speechless. But they had thoughts and hopes and dreams, and that is why they came. It was a place of forlorn hope and distant dreams. They believed with all the fervor of the dead. They believed that here in this place, once upon a time, a ghost had gone. Gone where none knew, but gone nonetheless to wherever the people went, the ones who were not ghosts.

And in that abandoned church, the ghosts sat in their silent pews and kept their hopeful vigil. Hoping beyond hope that they would be chosen. And every seventh Sunday, they hoped in vain.

And when the night turned into day, the assembled ghosts collected their chains, and their white sheets, and their ectoplasm and returned to the haunts from whence they came. But they always returned. Always.

 

Flash Fiction Friday: Concerning Gout of the Butterfly & Other Miscellaneous Maladies

II.

…Monarch butterflies can, actually, suffer from gout. This is a scientifically proven fact, attested to by numerous highly regarded if more than usually eccentric scientists[1]. The first to successfully confront the pressing question of gout in butterflies was a German medical student, Hieronymus Hegelbert, in 17th Century Hamburg. Young Mr. Hegelbert was a promising medical student and a keen lepidopterist. The precise origins of his peculiar interest are obscure at best. His diary[2] is oddly silent on the subject[3]. It is known, however, that he conducted his observations and experiments over a 15-year period between 1678 and 1693. Over the next few years he compiled his magnum opus, Die Gicht der Basisrecheneinheit: Anmerkungen und Beobachtungen, which has been translated into numerous languages and was passed among the various Aurelian Societies of Europe before fading into obscurity.

Hegelbert’s treatise was rediscovered in the 1840s by Adamari and Ricchetti, a pair of physicians in the court of Pope Gregory XVI. Butterfly gout struck these two learned and holy men as patently ridiculous[4], and they set out to disprove Hegelbert’s findings, which they did conclusively. This was and odd use of their time, which like Hegelbert, they could never entirely explain. Serious minded men, they seem to have been on a crusade against ridiculousness. Their study, nevertheless, had one fatal flaw. They had neglected the monarch butterfly.

This oversight was corrected by a certain Dr. Ambrose Vandeermeer in 1860. His interest was personal. An acute sufferer of gout, he conducted a study on all manner of animals including otters, piglets, raccoons, coconuts, and, of course, monarch butterflies. For his efforts he was laughed out of Harvard and died two years later[5]. His work is considered seminal and was taken up in the 1960s by a small think tank operating outside Cambridge. Their motives are murky at best and occasionally classified. About all that can be said for certain is that they demonstrated conclusively that monarch butterflies can, in fact, suffer from gout[6].

III.

It is a well-known fact that coconuts can occasionally contract laryngitis…

 


 

 

[1] Twenty-three to be precise.

[2] Which was found some centuries later in an attic in France next to a Van Gogh of uncertain provenance.

[3] Although it does contain an impressive, if disturbing, number of passages concerning the habits and attributes of a burgermeister’s wife.

[4] They were later found guilty of embezzling money from the Holy See and excommunicated, although their findings regarding butterfly gout were long treated as gospel.

[5] Killed by a cannon ball at Antietam

[6] How useful this information is, however, remains an open question. Although at least one Pentagon official circa 1963 certainly seems to have had an answer. Which is disturbing on many levels.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Fish Bowl

The old fish stared out at the sea from behind the glass. It was so vast and blue. As vast and blue as he remembered. It had been difficult to clutch on to those recollections. Memories were slippery and much of his life had been spent between four walls of curved glass.

It was a nice fish bowel, as far as such things went—polished and clear, well-stocked with gravel and rocks. There was an ornamental mermaid in one corner and a treasure chest in the other. The old fish found them insulting. In his youth, he had consorted with mermaids and swum among great wrecks. Seen treasure hoards held fast in watery vaults deep beneath the waves. These pale plastic shadows only reminded him of what he’d lost and what he was about to regain. If the girl kept her promise.

She was sixteen, maybe seventeen. Human ages were much the same to the fish. She had brought him to the seaside hours ago and placed the fish bowel down in the sand. They both knew why they had come, but she had simply sat there on the beach beside him. Silent. Lost in her own thoughts. The fish could guess at those thoughts, sense the shape of them, and let her be, for now. He had waited a lifetime. He could wait a little longer.

Still, it was a peculiar torture to be so close and yet so far. And as the shadows grew longer, the patient, old fish began to grow restless. He swam around and around, faster and faster, darting longing glances at the sea. He could feel it calling to him. Finally he could wait no longer.

“I know it’s difficult, child,” the old fish said. “But it’s time.”

Her shoulder’s slumped and she sighed. “I know,” she replied. Her eyes were full of terrible melancholy. “I just wish…”

“Don’t say that word!” the fish cried. The water bubbled around him.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean.”

“I know what you meant, child. You have always been very kind. More kind than this old fish deserves, but I’ve paid my dues. I made your father a mayor, and when that was not enough, a governor and senator too. I have fulfilled your mother’s every whim. Now you must set me free. That was the bargain. Those are the rules. I was promised.” The fish paused. “You pinkie sweared,” it said solemnly

“I know,” the girl replied. “But I’ll miss you. You’re my oldest friend.”

“And I shall miss you,” said the fish. “Deeply.”

The fish had watched her all her life, seen her grow, advised her, listened. He had been more of a parent to her than either her mother or father. And he loved her. She was a clumsy biped, but he loved her all the same. Growing up in that house had not been easy.

The girl sighed one last time and picked the fish bowel up slowly and headed out to the sea. The sand squelched between her toes and the waves lapped at her feet.

“I never got to make a wish,” she said.

“And you’ll be all the happier for it. Goodbye, child,” the fish said. “I wish you nothing but the best.”

“Goodbye,” she whispered then gently poured the fish out into the sea.

For a moment, he was falling, then he landed in the ocean with only a little splash. After years of confinement, of catering to human whims and desire, he was home.

The old fish was free.