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.

Tenderly Turned to Dust

         Black cloaks broke free from the darkness, skimmed across the moonlit snow—darkness made corporeal. Through the silent night, they heard the singing. Each swearing in their hearts by all that was holy—and all that was not. The song was one they all knew, whispered over the heads of sleeping children to send them off safely into their dreams.
         Accusations of blasphemy fell from several lips, to mix with the scent of pitch. The single lantern was shuttered, protecting the small flame from darkness and the mob from discovery. The little cabin was dark except for the faint glow of firelight; it lit the snow outside crimson and orange and threw the shadows of those inside into leaping giants.
         “Hush, my darling one.” the young woman inside brushed the fair hair back from the red, scrunched face of the restless infant.
         She could hear the footsteps crunching through the coating of frost, the hammering of hate-filled hearts, the burning blood of misplaced vengeance. She knew they would come. The symbol scratched on her door, the whispers in the town streets where the black mud crept through the white frosting of pure snow like disease through healthy flesh. She began to hum again until the little one’s face smoothed and the feathery eyelashes floated down to rest on apple-round cheeks. The child did not rouse when she brushed a long finger over the soft forehead, the downy face.
         There was a thump and a hiss as the first torch flew through the air, a comet of ill will. It fizzled out in the snow, but was soon followed by a rain of flaming brands. One landed on the roof and found thatch. It kindled, caught. The hooded cloaks fell away from their faces, contorted in glee. Their eyes lit with the red blaze of fervor, mirroring the writhing flames. The thatch crackled and crisped, the homey sound of a hearth-fire on a snowy evening. The roof crumbled in a shower of sparks that rose and mingled with the cold stars, immovable witnesses. As the little house disappeared in the tongues of flame and blazed hot, the attackers drew back from the leaping fire, watching as everything within was consumed. They heard no more singing.
         The sun rose over the smoking ruin and brought with it a chill wind that blew the dead leaves and drifts of snow over the bare black bones of beams and walls. The men and women that observed the wreckage no longer wore their cloaks and the pale dawn sun bleached their faces bone white. The swirling eddies of snow curled around the smoldering embers, quieting them into coals. The light-fingered wind blew, and brushed away the footprints that led away into the silent, black woods.

100,000 Words

Out of curiosity, today I Googled “how many words are in the average novel?” The general consensus was between 80,000 and 120,000. So, the midway point between those two would be 100,000 words. (Hey look, MATH!) I found myself unable to decide if 100,000 words seems like an enormous amount, or a completely attainable one. It depends, I suppose. If you asked me to read a 100,000 word doctoral thesis on the lifespan of a fruit-fly, that would be a lot of words. If, however, you asked me to read an exquisite, well-crafted novel, 100,000 words would seem like nothing at all. Likewise if you ask me to write 100,000 words. I could do it–really anyone could–but then again, anyone could sit down at a computer and type their name over and over and over again. Technically, that would be 100,000 words.

But that’s not the point, is it?

Words have to mean something. That’s what differentiates between 100,000 repetitions of your name and a 100,000 word thesis on a cure for cancer, or a 100,000 word novel. The novel doesn’t have to win a Pulitzer and the person who cures cancer doesn’t necessarily win the Nobel Peace Prize, but their words have weight, have meaning, perhaps even have soul.

I posted a quote  that is an excerpt from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Banquet Speech here. I can’t paraphrase Faulkner’s words without doing them a gross injustice, but to put it in my own weak and feeble words, Faulkner believed that real writing, true writing comes from an examination of the human heart, with all of its pain and pleasure and passion and disappointed dreams. He says that without discovering the importance of the human heart within ourselves, we can never hope to write anything that is truly living, beating, pulsing with life-giving blood. Without heart, we are simply writing–and living–based on the muscles and sinews and arteries that perform their required function.

This quote was first pointed out to me in a creative writing class and has really resonated with me since. It was interesting, therefore, when, after re-reading Faulkner’s speech last night, I came across this post by a fellow blogger Cristian Mihai entitled: You’ve got to sell your heart . His post was inspired by a letter from another well known writer. I thought this post really delved into the heart (pun 100% intended) of what Faulkner was trying to say. You can’t sit down at your computer or your notebook and tap out a perfect, cookie cutter little story or poem (or novel, or song, or proposal, or law brief, or statement of accounts or…). You have to put some of your blood, sweat, and tears into the thing. At this point maybe the law brief/business proposal/accounting letter loses some of the ability to relate—but does it? If you truly love something and are passionate about it, will you be content with just cranking out some mediocre piece of work that took a little brainpower and a little elbow grease, but not much else? Cristian Mihai says to sell your heart, Faulkner says to find fear and in so doing, rediscover the heart. I’m going to take it one step further.

You have to set your heart on fire.

In a song called Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) and in the notorious words of the late Kurt Cobain: “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” Don’t misunderstand–I’m definitely not idolizing Kurt Cobain or his fate, but he was on to something when he penned these words. I think the phrase “burn out” has more negative connotations than I feel like listing here, but a few would apply to drug users and some to the everyday man–burned out by the relentless drudgery of day to day life.  This is not the kind of “burn” I mean. For something to burn, it first has to be set on fire. Fire is hot, fire is light, fire is dangerous, and fire is a little bit scary. But is it better to live your life in fear of the fire?  Or is it better to let it take hold of you and burn hot and bright until it either ignites further flames or it burns through all of its fuel and leaves behind only ashes? In the words of another famous song writer:

“We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always come with getting burned
But you got to be tough when consumed by desire
‘Cause it’s not enough just to stand outside the fire” – Garth Brooks, 1993.

I think it’s a choice that has to be made, no matter your dreams, desires, career, or lifestyle. At some point, you have to decide: will you “burn out” in a blaze of glory that leaves a mark? Or will you simply fade away, never burned, never scarred, and without ever really living?