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



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