Editor’s Note: Good evening and welcome to Flashterpiece Mystery! I’m Mike Mavilia. Tonight, we have a very special night of fiction. In just a moment, you’re going to see the first of three hand-picked stories – truly one in a hundred – culled from the flash fiction anthology titled, Baby Shoes.
For hundreds and even thousands of years, very short fictional stories have been told to captivated audiences around the world. And yet, today more than ever, the form of the brief story holds an important place for both reader and writer alike. In a world where Twitter stories exist and technology calls for smaller circuitry in computer chips, the writing on the wall is clear: people want things small, yet powerful: concise. Enter flash fiction.
We begin with a little tale called “Consummation,” about a woman and her burning desire for a man.
by Danika Dinsmore
Fire is contagious. She knows this from the way her hands burn when he approaches. Fire is what happens when we collect oxygen, fuel, and heat. Anyone can oxidize over time. Anyone can burn slowly. She bears the heat because it is slow. She can, on a daily basis, write down one word of him, and it is enough. She can write down wrist or chin or thigh or shoulder. Feeding the flame. But sooner or later, she will combust. She is combustible.
She begins to collect small things, slips them into her pockets. Flame resistant things. Paperclips he has put in his mouth while on the phone. A dry pen tossed into the trash. A spoon used in the office kitchen before he has fed it to the dishwasher. Days later, she can still feel his heat in the objects, fading campfire embers. She warms her hands over her little dish of trinkets on the altar she constructed for them. Spends an evening melting them into each other until she can’t distinguish their separate parts. Her heat and his heat, coalesced, liquid metal hearts.
Reading in bed, she pulls herself from a daydream on the page. She must be careful how long she stares at one place in her book. If she gets lost in thoughts of him, the page in front of her inevitably catches fire.
She grows tired of not knowing endings.
She reaches thermal apogee on a Thursday just after lunch, blue sky crisp with promise. As the door to her elevator car is about to close, he slips inside. Presses her backward, smelling of sushi and soap and radiating from the bright day. He is full. Fuel. Her sharp intake of breath startles them both, and he drops his take-out bag as it ignites. He blinks into her face. Eyelashes, she thinks. Consumed.
The spontaneous combustion of love: many of us are familiar with that deep, burning desire. But what happens when a desire gets the best of our heads and we make deals that will haunt us for the rest of our lives (and afterlives)?
by M.S. Lambert
There’s something loose in the back. I can hear it moving—goddamn it, I told the boys to strap that crate down. There’s a twelve-foot bed on this truck; it’s not right to load just one lousy six by eight foot crate in it. I can run a thirteen hundred pound load from Cheyenne to Laramie and never hear a creak from the back. It’s these single item special deliveries that cause the problems.
It doesn’t sound like the crate is sliding around back there. It’s more like a skittering, clicking noise, like a dog trotting over the truck’s floor. Not trotting. Scurrying. Damn, there better not be a rat back there.
Sounds too big to be a rat.
Hell, I knew this job was wrong, it was written all over Mac’s face like milk starting to curdle. Sick. I never saw a man look as sick as he did when I picked up this load in Cheyenne. He runs the biggest independent shipping company in the Midwest, but he pops antacid tabs like they’re his hope of Heaven. Doesn’t even dissolve ‘em in water first, just puts ‘em right on his tongue.
“Just get it to Sioux City,” he said, like I couldn’t read the order for myself. “Tonight. By sunrise.”
“It’s a ten hour drive,” I said.
“It’s a long night,” he said, and gave me a cracked grin. That’s when I saw the sweat beading up on his face, running down his bloodless white skin.
“What is it?” I said. The shipping manifold just said canned goods.
“Special delivery,” he said. “For a special client. I can count on you, right, Ben?”
“Sure,” I said, like the fool I was. “I’ll get it there. Don’t worry.”
Long night. Damn straight it’s a long night, the longest of the year. Snow swirls out of the black sky, whirling through the headlight beams and across the empty interstate. I haven’t seen another truck in over an hour. No cars, either, but that’s to be expected at a little past two in the morning. The CB squats at my elbow, silent, the cord dangling from its mike and swinging a little with the truck’s motion.
My bladder’s starting to feel a bit of pressure, but it isn’t bad yet. I’ll give it another forty minutes; see if I can make it to North Platte. Everything’s quiet, except for the rumble of the truck’s engine and the skittering of whatever’s back there. Sounds like claws.
Next thing I know, a squeal of metal goes through my brain like a jackhammer. I slam on the brake, startled, and shit, shit, I’m skidding across the road. The wheel locks under my hands. I try to turn into the skid, but it’s like trying to haul in the Rock of Gibraltar.
I spin a full 360, wheels screaming, headlights bouncing over the empty white fields on either side of the road. I end up facing the wrong way in the west-bound lane, the stink of rubber in my nose and the headlights shining out into the falling snow.
I take a shaky breath and release the steering wheel, peeling my fingers off it one at a time. The engine coughs and I switch it off. Now all I hear is the tick of cooling metal and the moan of the wind. There’s a draft on my cheek, and I turn my head.
A six-inch gap cuts through the cab’s rear wall, like someone slit the metal with a cleaver. As I watch, a claw—hell, it’s gotta be eight inches long, but it’s a claw, like the world’s largest eagle’s talon—slides up through the gap. It hooks over the edge and pulls the metal down like you’d open a can of sardines.
My seatbelt’s locked. It kept me from going through the windshield a minute ago, but now it’s like a chain holding me down as I jab uselessly at the release button. Shit, shit, shit, the tortured metal screams in my ears as I fight with the unyielding straps locking me in place.
There’s a foot-long hole in the rear wall when the claw comes all the way through—five claws, attached to long, weirdly jointed red fingers—a whole fucking hand. One of them hooks on the base of my seatbelt and rips it out of the seat.
I throw the loosened straps off me and yank my door open. The wind blasts my face, hurling snow in my eyes as I stumble down to the frozen road.
When I look back there’s a demon crouched in my seat. It studies me with yellow eyes, huge as lanterns in its flat red face. Then it grins, a piranha smile with way too many teeth.
“Which way back to Cheyenne?” it says, and I swear all my ears heard was the shriek of the wind kicking up a notch, but there the words are, burned into my brain.
Not answering is not an option. I point west.
It runs out a long purple tongue, tasting the air. Standing six feet away, I can feel the heat baking off it. Snow swirls down but doesn’t land on its tongue. It vanishes before it gets there, leaving little wisps of smoke behind. Distantly, I’m aware the pressure in my bladder is gone. I don’t want to think about where it went.
“I liked Cheyenne,” the demon says. “Things were simpler there. A deal, a crossroads, people respect tradition there. Then I meet your boss, and next thing I know I’m in a box.”
It heaves a sigh, its reptilian rib cage lifting and falling like an accordion bellows. “Oh, well. He signed the contract, and payment’s due at dawn.” Its grin widens. “You’ll have to drive fast.”
The “Faustian Bargain” at the crossroad has made and broken many a man. Just ask musician Robert Johnson… when you get down there. Speaking of hellfire, our next story takes place during the Great Baltimore Fire, which left many of the city’s inhabitants homeless, unemployed and destitute amidst the rubble of this frozen-over hell.
by Jeb Brack
The fire swept through the city, fanned by the winds of February 1904. The fire brigades did their best, hampered by the cold that froze hydrants and split hoses. Companies from other towns responded, only to find that their hoses would not fit the Baltimore hydrants. Sparks and cinders lofted into the grey skies and descended on new sections of the city. Men in tall hats and women with parasols went about their business unaware that the fabric above them smoldered and withered, leaving only the stovepipe or the skeletal brolly frame. For two days and nights the glow of the fire lit the sky around the port, and Sims watched from his flophouse in Cheapside, cursing.
On the second day the clamor of fire and alarms died away. Sims joined the ranks of citizens drawn to the edge of the burned area, some wealthy men whose businesses now lay in ruins but most simply onlookers, hoping to see what remained of the city and perhaps acquire some abandoned valuables. They halted outside the ring of devastation, held at bay by police and soldiers with rifles warning of the dangers of smoldering rubble and unstable structures still standing. The crowd craned their necks toward the piles of brick and ice that clogged the streets, but showed no sign of more until Sims yelled that it was vital to get to his office, how dare they hold him back? Others took up similar cries and moved forward against the cordon; Sims circled around the press and ducked down an alley as more police rushed up to aid their fellows.
Skulking through the streets, Sims tried to get his bearings, but none of the familiar landmarks remained standing. He thought he passed the John Hurst & Co building where he had set the fire two days before; not even the façade survived. Sims clambered over uneven mountains of debris and jumbled furnishings, badly balanced by his heavy satchel. His inclination to rush he resisted, knowing that undue noise would attract the National Guardsmen. He would never get another chance at this.
When he spied the National Exchange Bank ahead, he almost failed to recognize it. The shell of the once-imposing structure still stood, but sheets of ice coated it, evidence of the sheer volume of water spent on the blaze. Through the now-empty windows Sims looked up at the sky; the floors and roof lay on the bottom floor as a pile of frozen, murky ash. Sims scrabbled through a first-floor window. He cast about in the fading afternoon light, sure that his prize huddled under tons of wreckage, unreachable.
No, there! In the corner, canted over at a rakish angle, sheathed in ripples of ice, stood an enormous oblong: the massive safe that once adorned the office of the bank president on the fourth floor. When the floors weakened, the fireproof monstrosity had plunged through the blazing building, remaining whole as the rest of the bank went up in flames, hidden beneath the torrents sprayed by the firemen.
Sims breathed a silent prayer of thanks. Since lighting a small fire in the cellar of the Hurst building two days ago, nothing had gone according to his plan. First the fire flared out of control, drawn by the breeze that swirled up the elevator shaft. In fifteen minutes, instead of creating a Sunday-morning distraction, the entire place burned like a torch and set other buildings afire as well. Then the quiet district exploded in panic as businessmen flocked to their establishments with every manner of wagon, cart, and buggy to evacuate valuable goods and materials. Instead of quietly entering the bank while passers-by watched a small fire, Sims found himself helping load furniture and filing cabinets onto milk wagons until he retreated along with everyone else, fleeing the advance of the flames.
Alone now, he set about breaching the safe. A few taps with a hammer and the ice sheathing fell away; the scorched metal of the safe still radiated warmth. From his satchel Sims drew prybar and wedges. He preferred quieter methods of cracking a box; forcing sand into the lock mechanism, say, or searching the office for the combination that the banker could never remember. Those options were destroyed as utterly as Baltimore itself. But inside the safe lay a bundle of bonds, their presence revealed to Sims by an embittered clerk who had lost his position. The bonds, worth half a million dollars to anyone who possessed them, made the risk of noise acceptable.
Sims applied the prybar to the seam between the safe door and the frame, just over the hasp of the lock. Fire had melted the combination dial and likely fused the works as well, so finesse had no place here; this was the job of brute force. Sims leaned on the prybar, then drove a wedge into the minuscule gap. He repeated the process below the lock, wedging it deeper. Then back to the first, the second, the first, each time spreading the frame away from the door a little wider. Every so often he paused to listen but heard nothing outside. The light had nearly drained away when the frame, creased beyond endurance, made a slight pop as the hasp came free. Sims drew a deep breath of gratification, then swung the safe door wide.
He caught sight of the stack of bonds, still safe inside their treasure chest, as the raw heat inside smote him in the face. The cold air rushed past him and struck the superheated interior. The fire, deprived of atmosphere until now, erupted inside the safe. Sims cried out and lunged for the bonds, searing his hands and face and drawing back only fragments of burning paper that crisped into ash as he held them.
The fire burned merrily for a short time, but Sims remained where he was long after the warmth faded and the cold returned, turning the tears to ice upon his cheeks.
Perhaps that old adage that “crime doesn’t pay” is true after all. One thing’s for sure, those displaced Baltimoreans paid the price and they didn’t even start the fire.
I know you’ll want to join us next month for our next installment of short fiction. Until then, for the Fictional Café, I’m Mike Mavilia. Good night.
About Danika Dinsmore:
Danika Dinsmore is an author, performance artist, and educator primarily working in speculative fiction for juveniles and young adults. She often takes her Imaginary Worlds Tours events to conferences and festivals across North America, performing for children and teaching world-building and creative writing for both kids and adults. She lives with her husband and big-boned feline on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia.
About M.S. Lambert:
Miriam Lambert lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. When not writing, she enjoys hiking the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her golden retriever, Samwise. She also has a degree in physics and calibrates linear accelerators on occasion. Because, why not?
About Jeb Brack:
Growing up in Baltimore, Jeb Brack was fascinated by the Great Fire of 1904, so everything in the story is true, except for the things he made up. Jeb’s other short fiction includes advertising copy and online content, as well as a story to be published in the upcoming anthology The Desert Bus.
These three works were first published in Baby Shoes: 100 Stories by 100 Authors, edited by Jason Brick and Dani J. Caile. Copyright (c) 2015 by the individual authors. Used by permission of the Baby Shoes editors and the authors.