The Flicker of a Flame

Violet didn’t like fire. After all the fires she’d seen, all the destruction she’d witnessed, all the terrible things she’d had to do, to protect herself, to protect those she loved… The lines between good and evil had been blurred for god knows how long, and she was no longer quite sure where she stood. If bad deeds are done by good people who are trying to do good, does that make the deeds less bad or the people less good?

Violet didn’t know.

But she knew that fire was right at the heart of it. Fire had ripped apart her family, killed her parents. Fire had killed her friends, destroyed her home and the homes of so many others, decimated communities, turned safe places into a pile of ashes.

She’d tried to rebuild her life. But the smell of smoke still made her twitch, made her heart beat faster, made her palms sweat and her pulse quicken. She wasn’t scared of much, anymore, but she couldn’t have candles in her house, couldn’t go near bonfires. Even fireplaces, where fire was contained and controlled, were sources of terror for her.

She’d banished a lot of demons. But the flicker of a flame reminded her of all the devastation she’d seen, and that…

Well. She didn’t think that would ever go away.

-Maura Kenny

[15/02/17: Fire]

Aidan & Ariel

IMG_0147.jpg

The pair of them, born under Gemini in two different continents and yet here they were, together in a tent that was perched quite precariously on a mountainside out in the Cairngorms. The natural darkness of an evening made them sleep far earlier than they would’ve at home in their busy city lives. Ariel suffered perpetually from bouts of insomnia and the sound of the crickets humming kept her awake, even here in the stillness. She crawled out around midnight, leaving her sleeping bag in a shrunken ball, and decided upon a miniature hike up to the crags of their chosen mountain.

Only yesterday Aidan had said to her, By god you’re weird. He meant something about the way she crumbled her food into bits before she could eat it, or how she had to comb her hair 33 times each night, or how she wouldn’t stop singing that old Tim Buckley song, ‘Song to the Siren’ at all hours of the day. Ariel couldn’t help it; it was a damn fine tune and a treat to hear her voice in reverb, soaring out across the valley and shivering in the pines.

They had met at a business conference in Edinburgh only a year or so ago. Aidan worked for an old-fashioned company who made money from burning coal; Ariel for a startup who sold trendy mineral water at what Aidan considered an extortionate price. His whole brand was money to burn, while hers was clean and pure. They’d become good friends by ripping into the hypocrisies of their mutual employers while sneaking coffee breaks behind the corporate screens; after the interval for lunch, they sat next to each other and he’d scribbled funny notes on her ring-binder. When the day was over, they exchanged Outlook accounts and spent the next few months writing hundreds of urgent, enthusiastic emails to each other. They gushed about a mutual love for the wilderness, their craving for air and light and the shelter of mountains beneath sunset skies. Aidan quibbled with Ariel’s definition of the sublime. They argued about music: she was a ballad girl with a heart for folksongs and lost shanties passed down through her father’s radio; he liked fiery punk rock, the kind where the singer had to spit frequently onstage as if the words had congealed in his mouth.

Now they were here. By some miraculous alignment of mystical equations, they found themselves cooking pasta together on a cheap stove and taking long, leg-killing walks over burns and hillsides. The weather had at least been intermittently kind. Ariel and Aiden had gotten on so well, talking incessantly about their respective lives and admiring the scenery; but things had changed as of yesterday, when they visited the Wells of Dee. It was almost dark by the time they found the treasured landmark, neither of them being particularly adept with maps – in the city, you could just trust Google. All afternoon, they had traipsed for hours through boggy terrain, the land around them smelling of coldness and snow and pale sweet heather. It was summer, but they suspected that here it would always smell of snow. At the Wells, the dusk rose its lilac shroud around them as they stood before the river’s source, its outflow splashing off the mountainside in dramatic ripples of silver. There was a deep sense of mystery contained in that lake of water, an opaqueness of grey that would not give up its secret even as one broke the surface with a boot or a stick or a finger. Standing by the water, Aidan observed a change come over Ariel. She shook out her French plait, which had gathered considerable dishevelment from three days of hiking. She pulled off her socks and shoes and rolled up her oil-black leggings and waded into the pools. Come in, it’s lovely. He shook his head and just stood there, watching, an impenetrability suddenly coming between them.

In a sense, this was the zenith of her being before him. She was purely, utterly in her element. She splashed the freezing water on her face, arms flailing playfully. Later that evening, cooking her soup on the stove, he burnt the back of his hand quite badly.

She had felt for the burn in the dark of the tent. Its tender red tissue was swollen; it felt like touching the mulch of a distant planet. She unravelled her body and entered the night alone. The crags found her as if by instinct and soon she was sitting in her night slip and cardigan knit, bearing her body to the moon.

She knew that soon he would wake at the sound of a kestrel bursting from the forest, its firework snap following rumbles that shook the bristled tops of trees and spread like a spell across the mountains, like the promise of some imminent eruption. She knew that he would open his arms and there would be a gaping space where she was supposed to be. Then the igneous lump of his heart would incur its first melting. Until then, what else was there to do but study the constellations?

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompt: zenith)

 

… and the darkness stared back

The moment the viravijn tore Midhail apart at the seams, time seemingly froze entirely, fixed on the frame of a splatter of blood spreading through the air, and Andris knew something had gone terribly wrong.

She couldn’t bring herself to move, stuck in place, straight as a spear, as utter chaos unfolded before her eyes; some wise soul tried to conjure up a fireball to fling at the monster, but the creature simply swerved to the side menacingly easily, and the flaming sphere flew right past, sparks catching onto the branches and leaves of the trees of the grove until it exploded against a hazel bush further off in the distance, setting the forest violently alight. The brightness of the blaze clashed obscenely with the ambience of the night, with the sombre, pale light of the moon that flooded the clearing.

She did not move even as her own fair hair and white cloak were splattered with the blood of another of the viravijn’s victims; only her jaw hung agape, as the abomination turned to face her.

Andris stared into what looked like empty, pitch-black holes in the bark of an ancient, overgrown tree; or least that’s what you could have called it, were that tree not moving on six long, spider-like legs, and had that tree not possessed two lean arms, thin as sticks but hard as granite, each with dagger-like, narrowing fingers. But this was no tree, and those were no holes; those were eyes, and from within them grinned – grinned, though it had no mouth to speak of, and no other features that would give that away – a spirit, a spirit that radiated an intense aggression and hatred the likes of which she had never seen.

She could not say why it seemed as though time had slowed so much, that though it took her only a second, it felt like she spent ages on a single turn of her head to the side, where a dozen lifeless bodies, or broken pieces thereof were strewn about the clearing. Another second, long as a century, and her hand reached for her sword as her eyes turned back to stare into the darkness in the eyeholes of the viravijn. The darkness stared back.

This was meant to be a normal summoning, same as many others. This was not the first time their coven had bound a demon; it had no reason to go wrong. They weren’t new to this. The pentagram was drawn by people who had done it a hundred times before, and they had checked a dozen times, before proceeding, whether everything was as it was meant to. This was their first, and last, mistake.

The monster screeched – a violent sound of violent intent that reverberated through her ears like the sound of a hundred pots falling to the ground. Andris closed her eyes, and gripped her sword. As tightly as she could. The viravijn charged.
And then, what seemed like an eternity later, it screeched again.

by Dovydas Kuliešas

(prompt: 12.2.16: havoc, moonlight, summon)

The second-born

It was cold. Colder than she would have ever expected. She was already wrapped in numerous furs but the icy wind blew into the uncovered parts of her face, reddening her cheeks and making her nose run. So, this was the place where she was supposed to spend the rest of her life. A cold, waste land covered in snow and ice and already pitch-dark only two hours after midday.
She had always known that as a princess her marriage would be arranged, suiting her parents political ambitions. It was a matter that she had never questioned but now she wished that at least, she were the older sister. The one who would follow their parents to the throne, the one who could stay in the woodland kingdom where nymphs danced with fairies in the summertime. Instead she had ended up as the wife of the emperor of the Northern Realm, the most unfriendly part of the world.
The sledge dogs stopped in front of a huge building made of black marble and covered with little white ice crystals. Icicles were hanging from the roof and the windows. Although it was dark, the palace was sparkling as if there was a little flame inside each crystal.
The door opened and a man wearing a white fur coat and red boots appeared. The Emperor. “Dear wife” he said “Welcome to the Palace of Frozen Fire, your new home!”

Rut Neuschäfer
What were your prompts?: pictures of Philadelphia fire

Charlotte’s Letter

The vague, half-real shapes came down the mountainside, silhouetted against the dull shine of distant moonlight. Charlotte perceived their shadows with the awe she felt owed to her by the mysteries of this silent scene. ‘Twas just like the landscapes she had read about in novels. Looking up to the moon, she jutted her neck out to make her hair billow just so, in the imitation of the sirens whose images she had seen in picture book illustrations. Harry was always taking her to those peculiar bookshops which stocked all sorts of strange hardbacks, often with beautiful velvet covers and stories about dragons and wicked landlords and heroines who swooned under the glaring monstrosity of their captors.

The wind began to shriek as the night wore on, and Charlotte was beginning to lose all sensation in her toes.

“How long must I stand here?” she muttered in complaint. However, there was a way of taking the sting out of her waiting. Charlotte imagined what she would write about all this in a letter. It was important to render exactly the interplay between darkness and light; between the gleam of the snow-capped mountains and the dark spectres of endless cliff-faces, the leafless trees and husks of rock. The way her mind shifted in the expanse of darkness to the shimmering abyss offered by the white horizon, where clouds had settled under the spell of moonlit silver. The dim violet of the sky and its jewellery case of stars. The luxurious feel of the grass beneath her feet, the scent of heather and fresh flush of the cold on her face.

Still, the cold was really getting too much for her and so she decided to move on. She took dainty paces up the mountainside, where she had spotted signs of a little cavern. It would be perfectly fine to rest a night there; Harry was sure to come and pick her up in the morning. In fact, she even spotted a trace of amber light coming from a nook in the rocky ridge; and light bore the promise of hospitality.

All she was really supposed to do was wait, of course. She had trekked all the way through fields of ice and mist and snow and now her task was simply to wait. The love of her saviour would be strong and pure, and so forever in his arms she would be secure.

It wasn’t Harry that found her in the end, but a wandering poet who was savouring the glow of vertigo as he traipsed along the cliff edge, dangling in one hand a pen and the other his paper. Occasionally he burst into spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling, bearing his voice to the singing wind:

O martyr of mist and myriad spirit
how music mingles with the passion in it!
A chance encounter with these holy hills,
enough to ease the mind from all its ills!

He continued the verse with the surge of impassioned timbre, until suddenly he came upon a glint of light in the mountainside. Curious, he pocketed his pen and paper and scrambled up the rocky ledge to see better. He began to hear the hum of sweet sweet music; the hum that filled the thin air as if it were the ambient sounds of the mountains themselves. The poet could not help but fall into song:

Perhaps a maiden fair and bright
might come from dark and dreamy heights;
dressed in her gown of fairest white
will she succeed in fighting night?

He paused at the entrance to the cave to look back at the portion of mountainside that he had just climbed. All dropped wide and deep below him into a chasm of snowy fog and sinuous cloud. He felt a great gape in his stomach and struggled not to curse aloud.

But the horror of this sensation paled in comparison to the horror that faced him over the ledge. The poet clambered to his feet and what he saw poured poison through his delicate veins. A maiden she was, yet dressed in navy, her once-coiled hair now loose and undone. And yet he could barely see what beauty she bore for the calamity around her: great pools of blood and blackened flesh that seeped and festered beneath her dress. Her golden hair was leeched with bloodied spots, and her limbs were twisted in curious knots. Most disturbing were the things that ate her: great hoards of fireflies, descending from the back of the cave with their thunderous buzz.  Their very wings were aflame with wicked glare. Through the blur of the poet’s tears, the whole swarm seemed an inferno sent from hell. The poet blinked and blinked and staggered back, so disturbed he was at this most vivid ravishing of beauty.

But he stumbled too far, and so toppled down the mountain, his final word a distorted roar.

T’was but a year or so later that poor Harry was hiking through the mountains, when he came across this enchanted cavern and found dear Charlotte’s letter. And what a marvel and masterpiece it would have been – the prize of every museum! – if Harry too had not succumbed to those ravenous fireflies. Yet still the letter sits inside this cave, the jewel kept safe by those sacred, flaming insects. Maybe some other Romantic one day will come to take it; or maybe nature will slowly reclaim its place and consume it.

Prompts: chiaroscuro, fireflies, vertigo

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Requiem

It rained heavily when he finally finished. A gust of chilly wind swept through the archway the moment he lifted the quill of the parchment, leaving the last drop of ink on the page.

He straightened up from his crouched position, joints and muscles protesting loudly. The last page lay in front of him, with colourful, swirling patterns and vines encircling the black letters. He had been so intent on his job that his hand cramped and nearly refused to relinquish the quill. Gingerly he moved it away from the precious page and used his other hand to pry it loose and place the quill back in its holder. Massaging the hand gently, he took a moment to squint at the page and check it for errors. Lamps burned on the wall despite it being mid-day, the thick and heavy clouds brought on such a gloom that they all needed the extra light. Now the promised rain poured down outside, the garden barely visible through the curtain of water behind the archway. The garden was reflected clearly in his work, the leaves spreading out around the text like a living thing. The ink was still wet in places.

He was not sure how long he had been working, but his head was starting to hurt as he began to move his body. His fingers ached and as he started to focus the rest of his body decided to tell him sore it was. They had all been working on this piece for months, so many details and words; but now the last page was done. Even though his joints were burning it was worth it for this moment. He started to tidy up and move his utensils away while brother Matthew loitered nearby. That in itself was an unusual sight, the brothers did usually not have time to loiter anywhere. As he stood up brother Matthew approached and together, in silence, they worked until Matthew slowly and reverently picked up the page. The scriptorium grew silent as it was carried between the benches. The page was no finer than any of the others he knew, but the moment that the final pieces were completed never ceased to feel special.

Almost as quickly as it had begun, the rain outside stopped. He picked up his staff and moved out into the garden to take a short stroll to awaken his limbs and his mind again. The clouds were still dark and heavy above, but the air was filled with the sweet scent of summer flowers and rain on grass. He followed his usual, well-worn path through the garden, beyond the gate and up the sloping hill towards the grove. The trees grew close together with their leaves and flowers in full mid-summer glory. It was quiet. The birds hiding from the rain had not yet returned to their stage and every leaf, bush and tree was saturated with the water. It was a palace of green that muffled all worldly thoughts and enveloped him in peace as he walked. The weather had made the day start gloomy and quiet, but now it had acquired a new character: cleansing.

As the path took him around the grove and back to the top of the hill again – ready to return – he realised just how deep his meditation and jubilation had been. He should have heard them: heard the voices, heard the screams. Unknown riders on unknown horses swarmed the monastery like black ants. Specks of brown clothes gave evidence of brothers he knew down below, but they moved aimlessly, trapped between the black-clad men while flecks of white spiralled in the air.

The bonfires grew high.

It had rained heavily when he finished. When the quill left that last drop of ink. He could see it now, the drop rolling of the tip and nestling on the page: the dark letters and slender leaves still wet. Now they burned.

Nina Lindmark-Lie
What were your prompts: Picture of manuscript, Rain

The Firebrand

Evelina Maplin was a figure shrouded in mystery and Turkish tobacco smoke.

Hector Maplin, former owner of the once-respectable Maplin’s Printmaker’s, had died over a decade ago, and even he had outlived his business. But his daughter and heir, Evelina, still found a use for his clanking old steam powered press. She was the author of some sixty-eight printed works of a political and dissident nature, under the pseudonym of Everard Cartouche. What’s more, these were not the intellectual musings of the bourgeoisie suffering from chronic ennui – far from it. These were pure vitriol: outlandishly anti-establishment raving, often accompanied by viciously-scrawled satirical cartoons, from an utterly degenerate working-class, unmarried, formally uneducated woman of loose moral character, who, despite her almost legendary standing amongst her supporters, simply could not be tracked down by the appropriate authorities.

I, however, took it upon myself to discover this singular woman, and give her the place she deserved among the chronicles of the poor. My project was not an easy one, but it was my life’s work, and I could not bear to see it published without at least a perfunctory article on this typewriting- troublemaker. It had taken over a year and much careful probing of the most knowledgeable (and lucid) inhabitants of the more dilapidated boroughs even to discover that the name Everard Cartouche was a nom-de-plume, and that, indeed, the writer of these monstrous attacks on the hierarchy were in fact the work of a hand belonging to a member of the fairer sex. After three tireless years of questioning and trawling birth registers and old police records, I was able to patch together a vague profile of this girl, and only a matter of days ago, a name and an address. And finally, there I stood, upon the doorstep.

Her headquarters were the dingy attic above her father’s out-of-business print shop, though to this day I never discovered her permanent abode. The street was as narrow as they come, the buildings on each side leaning toward each other like two infants exchanging a sheepish, tiptoed kiss. The blacked-out windows belied the lively history of political dissent and rabble-raising that was once achieved in this ancient printing quarter, on rickety wooden machines punching out elaborate pamphlets challenging religion and royalty, society and science.

The front door was firmly padlocked, but on closer inspection of the premises I found a passage leading to a back courtyard, with an ancient and (I hoped) out of use privy, and a few lines of sorry laundry, floating on a weak breeze. The sun was setting, and the yard, with its weeded clutter of cobbles, was filled with a ruddy, stifled light.

The door to the old print shop was ajar, leading to a wormy wooden staircase which climbed into the thick darkness. The scent of tobacco could already be detected, and this is what I followed to the object of my several years of study. I climbed as quietly as I could manage, though the rickety boards groaned and shuddered with every step. As I grew nearer to the top floor, I could see a dim yellow light around the frame of the trapdoor leading to the attic, and I could hear a furious clacking sound amidst a cacophony of whirring and hissing. Abandoning my usual courtesy, I decided it best not to knock, lest I startle my prey into locking the door and hiding herself away. Instead, I quietly raised the trapdoor and climbed the dusty ladder.

Miss Maplin had her back to the entrance, and she was tapping at the keys to a monstrous typewriter – the beast had to be some twenty or thirty years out of date – whilst an equally gargantuan steam printing press chuntered behind what can only be described as a mountain of miscellaneous pages, both loose and cheaply bound, forming almost a half-wall in the centre of the room. She had not heard me enter, but, alas, my figure created an eerie shadow in the light of her single oil lantern, and she ceased her typing and whirled about, causing the fat cigarillo she held to spray a flutter of ash onto the desk at which she worked. A lick of flame erupted on a stray page, and quickly spread to a large stack nearby. Stifling a scream, she attacked the fire with a moth-eaten shawl, but her in her panicked state she knocked the lantern off the desk, and a new, greater blaze emerged as the burning oil spread over the piles of dry paper – perfect kindling. Cursing like a sailor, Miss Maplin attempted to put out the flames with her foot, but envisioning the disaster if her petticoats were set alight, I intervened, dragging her away from the growing inferno.

“We must leave, Miss Maplin!” I pleaded, and half-carried her through the trap-door, kicking and screaming.

Once we had fled the building, which was fast filling up with smoke, I caught my breath and attempted to address the terrible misfortune of my visit to the clandestine malcontent. Before I could muster a word of comfort, she throttled me:

“That’s my life work!” She shrieked. “Up in flames! Who are you? Saboteur!!”

“I am…a fellow writer, Miss Maplin.” I panted. “A journalist. A chronicler of the poor, to be precise. I…I simply wanted to meet you, to learn about your business…to write about you, for – for posterity. I never meant…”

“Well…” She spat. “That’s all very well then. For the poorhouse is where I’ll be going after this.”

Rachel Norris
What were your prompts?: Curiosity, Introvert/ink

Sophie

Sophie had always been sunny. Born in June with sunlight locks and seared cheeks. Like those old Italian paintings, she was the female cupid – all cherub-like and delightful, whacking great smiles on the stiff, oil lips of the heroines. She sang single lines of nursery rhymes with greater warmth than any heavenly choir could muster.

“Fetch the engines! Fetch the engines!”

Ever curious and on the hunt for anything new, Sophie would take things without me knowing, just to discover them herself. She didn’t like being told what was the wrong way or what was the right way: she had confidence in HER way, and nothing else could matter. She’d tell me sometimes how to do things “properly”, with the imagined wisdom of someone ten times her age.

“You can’t make tea like that”.

“Mummy, put the milk in the pot before you warm it”.

“I can warm the milk better”.

I am nothing like Sophie. Quiet and safe, I don’t explore or discover or try anything new. She was adventure enough for me, my little girl. A supernova. When I tried to explain action and consequence she couldn’t listen to me, and it grew more difficult as her audaciousness increased.

It’s a strange thing, to see the snow of Winter and think of her. The way she tramped about the garden in her boots in Summer – chasing the frogs and the damselflies – made her stand vibrant, even against the blue sky. Snow seemed to restrict her from her adventures, the clouds dulling her buttery curls with the sky.

The heating broke last month. I hadn’t the money to replace it, having spent it all on hosting the family for Christmas. We were surviving on hot milk and multiple blankets.

Sophie had grown entirely contrary. I was never right, always to be questioned, always doubted. I held my quiet patience until two weeks ago, when I was heating our milk before our bedtime.

She had reached to touch the pan, and I warned her to be careful because of the heat. She asked me why, indignantly, and I explained carefully that she could burn her fingers on the fire, because it was very hot. She was insistent. Fire wasn’t hot, it was cold. I bickered with her, against usual practice, but she wouldn’t give in to my gentle reasoning. And though I knew she was fully aware that fire wasn’t cold at all, I broke.

I screamed at her, hysterical with frustration. Frustration at having my family for Christmas, at being a single parent, at not having any bloody heating in January, at having to constantly, constantly battle with a child telling me left was right. I don’t know how much I let out at her, only that it was too much. She cried and apologised and looked so heart-breakingly beautiful I could hardly summon words to address her. I managed to tell her everything was fine – that there was nothing to be sorry for, but despite my efforts, we both went through the motions of her bedtime routine in guilty silence.

For Sophie, having to sleep with three extra mismatched blankets was a fantastic game. Warm milk and soups and cuddling was something special to her, she couldn’t have known how unhappy the boiler was making me as I emptied kettles and pans of hot water into the bathtub for us.

I can imagine her making the connections. Mummy was suddenly angry, and it had something to do with her, something to do with the cold and something to do with the fire.

Sophie always had to figure it out for herself, I thought, stood in the icy presence of my black-clad family. The police had asked me why I hadn’t heard her before the alarm, as I slept in the room beside her. I could feel the scrutiny and suspicion through my own guilt like a salted wound. They found my matches hidden under her bed like a secret diary. She wouldn’t have cried for me: quiet and safe, I had taught her that when Mummy was right, she was scarier than anything she had ever seen before.

And for once, my little girl had proved me right. Fire was hot.

Louie Houston

What were your prompts?: “Bitter cold leaves site of Philadelphia fire encased in ice”

Fire, Ice and Other Remainders

Four in the morning and this has happened many times before. The distant alarms, the rising flames. The dead malls are prone to it, with their hoards of cardboard and flimsy walls. The paper remains of what was once a kind of wonderland; now just a labyrinth of skeletal stairways, abandoned shop fronts, shrivelled pot plants, abandoned coat hangers.

The firefighters come, stumbling in their layers of clothing, pulling hoses from their great red engine.

It isn’t the kids that called them. They have made the mall a sanctuary, a place of escape. They live in the catacombs of old stores, smoking dope and surviving off crisp packets and handfuls of Walmart pick’n’mix, exchanging tired conversations and pornographic magazines. This time it was a real fire that started the blaze: the freezing February temperatures have spread even this far east, and the kids are living in sub-zero conditions. Their existence revolves around cheap nylon scarves, blue lips and the warmth of each others’ bodies. For weeks now they’d been starting fires in tyre rims pinched from the hardware store; only this time, somehow, the fire had caught. It flickered and twisted along the walls, licking the handles from doors and stealing sales banners from the ceiling. As it grew, monstrous and distorted, the kids ran and screamed, gathering what few possessions they had and seeking shelter in the toilets. The basement toilets, where at least there was water.

Explosions were heard in some distant zone of the mall, probably the electrical department of the supermarket. So it had spread that far.

Some of the kids were shivering so hard they couldn’t think. Their speech came out slurred as they voiced jokes or regrets. Many sunk into a deep sleep, the smoke coming under the doors to fog up their eyes, their throats, their brains. They start to hear the shouting – loud men’s voices – as if it were the sound of someone shaking them, waking them from a dream. Their world closes up and everything is muffled.

It was never an easy job, putting out a mall fire. The problem was the open planning, the way the fire could spread as easily as germs multiplying over a plate of left-out food. It didn’t help that the firefighters were working in the coldest conditions anyone here had known for twenty years or more. They worked for three long hours, a bustle of bodies and roaring of water. Their cheeks were flushed but they had lost all sensation in their toes and fingers. By the time they had finished, they saw that it was minus 16 degrees.

It took them a long time to find the kids. Nobody had responded to their voices, so they had assumed the place was empty. By chance they found them in the basement, strewn across the floor of ersatz marble. Most of them were passed out, their faces either bright white or burning red, a layer of frost laced across their lips. Only a couple were still conscious, though their breathing was sharp and rapid.

“The-the fire-” one of them stuttered as he saw the man in the glowing uniform approach him.

“It’s all put out. Safe.” The man looked down on this kid who barely looked a day over eighteen. He wondered why so many were running away; why so many were drawn to these wastelands, these remainders of the cosy capitalism that had nurtured them from infants. He was strong and a logical thinker, and yet he couldn’t understand this whole-scale…abandonment.

The firefighters pulled out all twenty four kids from that grubby basement toilet. They wrapped everyone in whatever sweaters, throws and coats they could salvage from the burnt-out stores, then spent a good hour or so trying to revive those that were unconscious. Some of them opened their eyes with incoherent mutters, but others remained out cold. Their pulses slipped to a dull throb, then were still.

When all of them finally left the basement, they saw that the fire was extinguished, but the water lingered. It lingered in thin icicles that clung to the ceilings, window-ledges, escalators. In sheets of shining ice that skirted the laminate floor, bubbles of frost that stuck to the surfaces of upturned chairs and tables, slushy pools surrounded by chunks of miniature icebergs. It ornamented every object with its steely glint.

The firefighters packed the kids into three ambulances, their blue lights flashing shadows across the canvas of rime that covered the mall’s outer walls. As they worked, white crusts of frost slowly fell off in the timid warmth of dawn sunshine.

A final firefighter stood in the shattered glass of the sliding door entrance, staring inside at the wreckage. It was hell frozen over; the glacial remainder of a wonderland he himself had frequented as a boy. That shiny, plastic joy had been scorched, transformed, made molten. Those ghosts of shoppers and the exciting items they longed for were now purged by fire; by this inferno of the starving, the fire of those left behind. For a while the place would be nothing but a sublime temple of ice. God was trying to tell them something, of that he was sure. Out of all the kids the firefighters had rescued from the mall, they had managed to save only four.

(Prompt: Philadelphia fire photographs)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Embers

On television we watched the forest fires blaze across Australia. We wondered how something so intangible could catch so quick. Desperate for understanding, we put our hands through the yellow tongues that licked the top of bunsen burners in science class, but nothing happened. That evening I sat alone, watching the smouldering coals die quietly in the fire. When you came up later to see me, we kneeled again in front of the flickering images, oblivious to the shadows that billowed on the wall.

You said you wanted to touch earth, to breathe the metallic scratch of smoke.

We were thousands of miles from the fires, but driving in your father’s car we felt the energy surge beneath the tyres. It was so cold, so frostily cold that night when we camped in the forest. We sat up in that clearing we found, resisting the urge to sleep in the car, sharing our only blanket. We’d built a crap fire, with childlike flames and incessant spits of woodspark. We’d jump as every moment or so another crackle would pierce the dark. Your bare hand was violet and cool on my arm. I wouldn’t look in your face, for fear of realisation. We talked little, watched a lot. The fire burnt out before us, giving itself up to the misted damp of rain. Among charcoal spots, in the darkness, I saw glows of amber fade.

In the middle of the night, I got up to smoke cigarettes in the forest depths, tripping over branches and roots in the darkness. I scorched a small blackish circle on my thumb with my lighter. I was going to show you it, later. This place was perfectly void, except for the pine scent and owl calls. I inhaled each drag as if I were in the fires, sucking in a vaporous death. When I finally got back to you, you were frozen and shaking. Your eyes rolled to the moon and flashed like irises, whiter than white. Everything was going to be alright, I kept saying, relishing those silver tears. In silence we held pure fear. Under the stars, in the undergrowth, we curled together like fledglings without their mother.

In the morning we rose numbly, our bodies taut with confusion. You took me to the forest edge to watch the sunrise, the blazing pools spilt over the horizon. We tried to speak, to make sense, but we could only let out sighs.

I think we were missing television.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: forest, sunrise