It’s been a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig‘s Friday Flash Fiction Challenges–but Mr. Urban Spaceman himself encouraged me to give this one a shot. It’s not at all what I was thinking during my original brainstorming, but fun nonetheless. I went over a little on word count, but I’ll let it slide if you will. The prompt for this was: phoenix (as in the mythological creature) with as loose a connection as we wanted to make.
It started with the fires, but no one made the connection until it was too late. Uncle John was the first person I knew to figure it out. He was Grandpop’s little brother and the uncontested eccentric of the family. You name a conspiracy, he had a theory. Hell, he had theories about conspiracies you’d never heard of. The first fire was bad—an entire hotel burned down in Baton Rouge. There was no stopping it; they finally pulled the firefighters out after six of them had to be hospitalized. It burned right through the water hoses, vaporizing the life-saving water into boiling steam. The second one was a theater in downtown San Francisco that went up in the middle of a midnight premiere. The firefighters said they’d never seen anything like it—that like the fire had a mind of its own, fighting against them like a living beast. Fires popped up all over the country. New York and Houston and Miami. The firefighters and emergency crews all said the same—these fires were different.
I was sitting on the couch in my parents’ house, watching the coverage of the latest fire when Uncle John shambled in. Nothing was left of Michigan Central Station but smoldering embers. The reporters had a panel of experts discussing how a building with a thick marble façade could burn like paper. John was Grandpop’s brother but he was twelve years younger and seemed more like he belonged to my father’s generation.
“It’s a cleansing,” he said, cracking open a Budweiser.
Dad rolled his eyes, gaze fixed on the television. I decided to humor John, if only to take my mind off the fact that my big brother Jace was at the fire station this week. In a town this small, most of the department were volunteers. The only blaze in Kearney, TX worth noting was when Miz Kay lit her yard on fire trying to fry a turkey—but these days it seemed like everything was combustible.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
John wiped his grizzled chin and looked at me. “That hotel in Baton Rouge was known for its hookers. Not only that, but half the city council was seen going in and out at night, which’s why no one did anything about it. And that theater? Their late-late night showings would make the Marquis de Sade blush.”
I resisted laughing at his pronunciation—Mar-keese day Sad.
“Same thing in New York, Miami, and Houston—dens of iniquity, Momma would’ve called ‘em.” He half raised his beer to heaven and took a swig.
From what I knew of my great-grandmother, I didn’t think she’d appreciate the gesture.
“Coincidence,” Dad said.
“Who’s doing it, then?” I asked Uncle John before the two started arguing.
Uncle John looked at me fondly. I always asked questions—even if I thought it was all bullshit. “Well, Lynnie, if I knew that, I’d be claiming the reward money they’re all starting to offer.”
Only Uncle John and Jace called me Lynnie. “Okay, who do you think did it?”
He traced the top of his beer with a pinkie, going around the rim until I almost repeated my question. Glancing at my dad, he leaned towards me. “I have no idea.”
His answer chilled me. Uncle John always had a theory. He enjoyed coming up with answers to questions—even knowing they were ridiculous. Like people who watch Trivial Pursuit every night even though they always guess wrong. The chill tingled at the base of my skull and I reached for my cellphone before it rang. I knew it was Jace before I picked it up.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Are you home?” He asked, out of breath.
“Yeah—with Dad and Uncle John. What’s wrong?” I repeated.
“Get them and Mom and Grandpop and get out—drive as far as you can.”
I heard it now, over his breathing—the crackling roar, like the bonfires we used to build out back where we burned more marshmallows than we ate trying to make s’mores. I tasted metal and realized I’d bitten the inside of my cheek.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’ll be fine–just get everyone and go.” There was shouting in the background. “I love y’all, okay? Let me know when you’re safe.” He hung up.
Dad packed some supplies from the kitchen, the box of photo albums Mom kept beside the bed, their framed wedding certificate. John grabbed the rest of his six pack and his duffle bag—already packed for his visit with us. The retirement community where Grandpop lived was on the way out of town and Mom was there with him. I grabbed my own small suitcase—my things were home in Austin, safe for now.
“I have to get Cooper,” I said. Jace would never forgive me if we left his dog.
I threw my things in the back of Jace’s truck, glad he left it here when he went to the firehouse, and peeled out of the driveway, narrowly missing the Harris’ mailbox. I would get Cooper, I told myself, and then do what Jace said—get everyone out. But I saw the oily black clouds that slicked the sky. I drove towards the outskirts, barely glancing at stoplights or aware of angry honks and shouts. The warehouses were out there—places everyone told us not to go, where the few murders and assaults our little town saw always seemed to occur. If Uncle John was right—I couldn’t find any humor in that thought—then that’s exactly where the fire would be. The smoke was so thick that the engine started whining and, for the first time, I was afraid for myself. Emergency lights flashed through the haze, like neon strobes in a laser tag course. I pulled the truck over, bracing myself as I opened the door. The smoke stung my eyes like the time I ate too many stuffed jalapenos on a dare from Jace. Hot wind buffeted me from all sides, lashing grit against my arms and legs. The fire crackled, punctuated by shouting and sprays of water as the firemen tried to tackle the monstrous blaze. I knew which heavy-suited figure was him. He turned before I could yell, a faceless, masked stranger and ran towards me. I doubled over, coughing, the heat on my skin like a sunburn. The whole row of warehouses was blanketed in flames, not the friendly tongues of fire I knew; it looked like lava, so bright it seared my vision.
“Lynne! You have to get out, you have to get away from here!” Jace pulled his mask free and pressed it against my face, giving me a few moments of clean air.
“Come with me!” I yelled. The asphalt bubbled beneath our feet, sticking to my shoes.
He didn’t have time to answer, because we were knocked to the pavement as the whole row of warehouses collapsed, sending the flames shooting out, like a pair of giant wings.